The Sorry State of Czech-Russian Relations
Czech foreign policy is normally a rather dull affair. But at an extraordinary press conference on April 17, 2021, things got very, very interesting. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and Jan Hamáček, his interior (and, temporarily, foreign) minister, announced that Russian intelligence officers were suspects in a double explosion at an arms storage site in the Czech village of Vrbětice in 2014. In fact, the two Russians wanted in the Czech Republic were the same two agents linked to Russia’s assassination attempt of Sergei Skripal — a former Russian intelligence officer who spied for the United Kingdom — in Salisbury, England.
Ties between the Czech Republic and Russia were not destined to be this toxic. A member of NATO and the European Union, the Czech Republic sits comfortably in the heart of Europe. It is not on the frontline with Russia like Poland or the Baltic states. Some of the statements by Miloš Zeman, the country’s president, would be music to Moscow’s ears. For example, Zeman has declaredthat NATO’s very raison d’être is in doubt following the infamous end of the allied mission in Afghanistan. Since NATO is not in the business of fighting terrorism, he believes, there is now no need for the Czech Republic to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. Nevertheless, Moscow placed the Czech Republic — alongside the United States — on a list of “unfriendly countries.”
Why has the Czech Republic had such an unusually strained relationship with Russia in recent years?
The revelations in April of Russia’s brazen act of sabotage surely play a role. The explosion at the arms storage site generated domestic momentum in the Czech Republic to dismantle the intelligence networks that Russia had developed out of its embassy in Prague. Citing the Vienna Convention, the Czech government reduced the number of personnel allowed to work at Russia’s embassy by some 72 percent. The government also invoked Russia’s state responsibility for the attack and decided that the consortium led by the Russian firm Rosatom would be removed from the forthcoming Dukovany nuclear power station tender. The notorious recklessness of Russian intelligence thus harmed Rosatom’s chances, previously considered solid, of asserting its position in the Czech energy industry as the country sets to reduce its reliance on coal power. The move undermined Russia’s attempt to increase its clout by leveraging energy supplies.
Moscow has been reluctant to shed its imperial posture toward Prague, a former Cold War satellite. At the same time, the Czech Republic has not been blind to Russian interference elsewhere. But this alone cannot explain away the sour state of mutual relations. An underappreciated-yet-undoubtedly-relevant factor is that, since the 1990s, Russia has prominently featured in several emotionally charged ”geopolitical melodramas” that played out in Czech foreign policy. Specifically, the narratives surrounding Prague’s desire to join Western institutions like the European Union and NATO after the Cold War; the deployment of U.S. missile defense assets in the Czech Republic; and Russia’s embrace of hybrid warfare to project power in the region. Recognizing how the related scripts have influenced the Czech Republic’s stable sense of itself (often referred to as “ontological security”) is helpful for understanding the future of Czech-Russian relations.
Revelations about the explosions in the village of Vrbětice were only the latest episode in decades of uneasy relations between Moscow and Prague. While the Cold War ended 30 years ago, the Soviet Union’s domination of Central Europe is still imprinted in the collective memory of the people in the region. Czechs vividly remember how the Soviet Union violently crushed the Prague Spring protest movement in 1968 and maintained a direct military occupation of the former Czechoslovakia for next quarter-century. In recent years, Prague’s attempts at cautious rapprochement with Russia were not properly reciprocated by Moscow. As one of two convenors of a bilateral discussion forum — a diplomatic initiative coordinated by the Institute of International Relations in Prague and the State Institute of International Relations in Moscow — I know a thing or two about this. The hopes of Czech historians at the forum of addressing the issue of access to the notoriously impenetrable Russian archives, partly to uncover the fates of Czechoslovak citizens forcefully dragged to Soviet gulags, came to naught.
Simultaneously, the Kremlin’s covert activities continued, including a cyber attack targeting the Czech diplomatic service. Another cyber attack targeted health facilities in 2020 during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. As elsewhere, Russia has been weaponizing modern history in the Czech Republic. For example Russian disinformation operatives employed local proxies to stir up a controversy surrounding the removal of a statue of Soviet Marshal Konev from one of Prague’s liberal neighborhoods. Similarly Russian state media recirculated the familiar Soviet story that the 1968 invasion of Prague was a case of ‘brotherly assistance’. That said, Russia has reason to be irritated at historical revisionism that challenges the history of the liberation of much of Czechoslovakia by the Red Army at the end of World War II.
In order to achieve ontological security (i.e., a secure sense of one’s identity that is a condition of acting and of tolerating and coping with change), a number of competing scripts have been devised in the Czech debate. Russia has played an important role in three debates in particular: the Czech Republic’s “return to Europe” after decades of authoritarian dictatorship imposed by the Soviet Union, the controversy over a U.S. X-band radar station that was planned for deployment in the Czech Republic, and the issue of Russian hybrid warfare. While these melodramas reflect real events in the Czech Republic’s struggle to create a sense of security, they also sometimes produced anxieties of their own regarding great powers and extremes in relations with them.
The first relevant geopolitical melodrama in the Czech debate was ‘Return to Europe’, concerning the country’s desire to join Euro-Atlantic institutions after decades under Soviet oppression during the Cold War. It was anchored in “cultural geopolitics”that had Russia as a centerpiece. As former President Václav Havel argued and others have repeated, Russia needed to learn where its borders were. For Havel, this clear demarcation of civilizational boundaries was a means of preventing great-power conflict. But these boundaries were not meant to be an obstacle preventing liberal values from traveling in the other direction. Cultural geopolitics thus blended the geopolitical case for checking Russia at the “civilizational” border with the tradition of Czech missionary exceptionalism — yes, even small nations feel exceptional — as a commitment to broadcast humane ideals to the world, and the support of U.S. interventions to that end.
The second geopolitical development was Russia’s significant opposition to the prospective deployment of U.S. radar (ostensibly to protect against Iranian missile threats) in the military area of Brdy near Prague in the 2000s. There is no doubt that Moscow tried to spur public opposition against the project as it was worried the U.S. radar would cause strategic instability and undermine its own nuclear deterrent. In manipulating public opinion, Russia dusted off tactics that would become the staple of political warfare in the coming years, like enlisting local proxies protesting the project for reasons seemingly unrelated to Moscow’s point of view.
In the case of the planned radar deployment, Moscow did not manufacture the controversy on its own. Instead, it amplified an already-existing controversy in the Czech Republic and deepened divisions that were fundamentally domestic in nature. In this case, it was a clash between Atlanticists placing all security bets on Washington, on the one hand, and those who favored “continental” security solutions or isolationism, on the other. For Atlanticists, it was crucial to follow through on the missile defense deployments in the Czech Republic. In their view, the radar, while a small military installation, was a remarkable — almost supernatural — form of protection against Russia’s territorial expansion. When the Obama administration revised the plans to install the radar in the Czech Republic — it was later stationed in Kürecik, Turkey — a narrative of a new ‘Munich betrayal’ emerged. There was a lot of hyperbole and related anxiety produced in this counterimperialist script – Russia intended no territorial expansion, and there was no danger of the United States ‘abandoning’ the Czech Republic. But to be fair, the same was the case in domestic radical counternarratives, where the image of Munich was invoked to support the charge that elites were selling out the country, since radar installation meant it would now be ‘occupied’ by the United States.
The third and final geopolitical melodrama that shapes Czech foreign policy debates with relevance to Russia concerns hybrid war. The Kremlin’s political warfare, built on influence and subversion campaigns, is a dangerous reality, but in the Czech case ‘hybrid war’ is also a script that makes the Russia threat somewhat overhyped. To be sure, the Kremlin’s tolerance warfare has as its key objective increasing insecurity regarding the target’s identity. Moscow is no victim here. But exaggerating the related challenges makes it difficult to assess the exact proportions of the threat and thus to see Russia for what it is — a revisionist power engaging in “guerilla geopolitics” to bypass supposed Western superiority. Moreover, this overhyping occasionally creates a temptation to turn hybrid war into a local spectacle, a geopolitical melodrama featuring improbable cloak-and-dagger storiesfrom which some reap political or economic benefits.
Both the lack of realism in assessing the Russian threat and the instrumental use of actual instances of Moscow’s meddling have contributed to a certain paranoia in the Czech Republic that builds on existing anxieties concerning the Kremlin’s intentions and influence and breathing new life to them. No good can come from portraying socially conservative people who are distrustful both of institutions that they believe do not represent their interests and processes that are beyond their control, and see in Russia a place where life is still ‘normal,’ as agents of Russia’s covert influence. To do so risks covering up and even increasing the social divides that are an actual structural cause for the types of vulnerabilities exploited in real hybrid operations. Overhyping Russia’s threat building on this paranoia may not just miss the point, but be even straightforwardly counterproductive.
Three Possible Trajectories for Czech-Russian Relations
Russia responded to the initial round of expulsions of their diplomats and spies from Prague the day following the Czech announcement by sending 20 Czech diplomats home and all but debilitating the Czech diplomatic presence in Moscow. Since then, Russia has remained quiet in terms of its relationship with the Czech Republic. Moscow will likely avoid making waves at least until the upcoming Czech parliamentary election. After the elections, bilateral relations could develop in three broad directions.
First, Czech-Russian ties might remain frozen for the foreseeable future, limited to only occasional grandstanding and rhetorical spats. Ironically, for relations to remain the same, there would need to be a change in government. In other words, a democratic opposition profoundly skeptical of the Kremlin would need to win a majority of seats in the parliament and convince president Zeman not to obstruct the formation of a cabinet maintaining a status quo policy towards Russia.
A second possibility is that the Czech Republic could hit reverse and seek to appease Russia. This might happen if Prime Minister Babiš’ populist movement (ANO) manages to stay in power but wins fewer seats in the parliament. This would force him to ally with at least two anti-liberal fringe parties, the communists (KSČM) and national socialists (SPD), many of whose voters welcome cutting ties with the West and improving relations with Moscow. The government could reverse the decision, now even enshrined in a legal bill, on the Dukovany power plant tender to please Zeman who had previously openly favored the firm Rosatom. Babiš could dismiss Michal Koudelka, the media-savvy head of Czech counterintelligence, which has over the past years positioned itself as a key bulwark against Russia’s malign influence. While Babiš is no Viktor Orbán — his Hungarian counterpart, friend, and champion of illiberal democracy — and he has little admiration for Putinism, he will do whatever necessary to stay in power. For that reason, he may even be forced to take initial steps in this direction by Zeman to make sure the president asks him to form the cabinet in the first place even without a clear majority in the parliament which may remain beyond Babiš’ reach.
Finally, bilateral relations could be set on a path of slow, gradual improvement. This could happen if Babiš – or someone close to him but more acceptable as a replacement prime minister – remains, performing sufficiently well in the election together with a part of the democratic opposition whom he lures to govern with him to avoid alliance with the communists and national socialists . In this scenario, Babiš would seek to emulate not Orbán, but another counterpart of his, Sebastian Kurtz of Austria, and seek to benefit from a sort of mundane geopolitical duplicity.
Czech-Russian relations are now in ruins. The Vrbětice revelations were the last nail in the coffin. This was never a given, however, and to explain the current state, we have to look both at what Moscow has actually done, including its recent political warfare campaigns, and how Russia has been constructed in Czech foreign policy scripts devised to find the newly independent country’s place in space and time – its ‘ontological security’. The irony is that efforts to seek this security have sometimes unnecessarily produced new anxieties in relation to Russia. Now that the base for Moscow’s spy operations has been dismantled following the Vrbětice revelations, it is important that the risks it poses are neither underestimated nor overhyped.
Immediately, the critical variable that can now determine the future state of the relations is the outcome of Czech parliamentary election later this week, and the composition of the next government. The relations can remain deeply frozen or enter a path of a slow and gradual improvement. But under certain political conditions, even a more sudden reversal cannot be ruled out.
Ondrej Ditrych is the director of the Institute of International Relations Prague. He writes about European security and political violence. He is a leading editor of the volume Revolutionaries and Global Politics: War Machines from Bolsheviks to ISIS, forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press. You can find him on Twitter: @oditrych.