Zeman: 'My biggest failure in office? I was wrong about Putin'

In a candid interview on Sunday, the historically pro-Russian former Czech president apologized for having viewed Vladimir Putin in a positive light.

Thomas Smith

Written by Thomas Smith Published on 05.11.2023 15:24:00 (updated on 05.11.2023) Reading time: 2 minutes

In a televised interview Sunday with TV Nova, former Czech President Miloš Zeman publicly admitted that his “biggest failure” in his 20-year spell in office was his misperception of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Speaking about Russia’s widescale 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Zeman labeled Putin’s actions as “unreasonable” and said that the idea to attack Ukraine over 18 months ago had been “a tragic mistake.”

A scathing attack on Putin

Zeman lamented the impact of the attack – not only has it damaged Ukraine and European security, the former president said, but it has also hurt Russia itself. Zeman noted that Putin has destroyed Russia’s security, economy, and has put the Russian people at risk.

These words continue a common theme of Zeman’s recent criticism of Putin and Russia. Shortly after the 2022 invasion, Zeman said Russia’s actions were a “crime against peace,” “irrational,” and even called his ex-ally a “madman.” He also advocated for harsher sanctions following the widescale invasion.

He also encouraged international courts and a war crimes tribunal to bring the Russian to justice. “Lunatics need to be isolated, and we must protect against them not only by words but by concrete measures," he also stated in 2022.

Much warmer ties in the past

The ex-Czech president had historically favored warmer ties with Russia and – prior to February 2022 – taken a sympathetic view toward Putin. Prior to last year, Zeman expressed skepticism about the possibility of war and even ridiculed U.S. intelligence agencies for their warnings about an impending attack on Ukraine. 

In the past, Zeman had frequently echoed Kremlin narratives, aligning himself with Russian positions such as outright denying the presence of organized Russian troops in Ukraine, asserting Russian ownership of Crimea, and advocating for the removal of Western sanctions against Russia. Russian propaganda depicted him as an assertive, independent leader with anti-U.S. sentiments and a strong admiration for Putin.

During that time, despite representing a nation of just 10 million people, Zeman ranked as the second most frequently cited European leader in the Russian information space, second only to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Zeman would also frequently visit the Kremlin and often criticized mainstream Western media for being outwardly anti-Russian. He also played down accusations that the 2014 Vrbětice ammunition warehouse explosions were caused by Russia, drawing huge public criticism.

Candidly speaking about his past mistakes, Zeman’s admission of viewing Putin the wrong way does not change the past, though does underscore the extent of the Russian president’s wrongdoing and deception. 

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