Russian Trip Roulette

In Czech politics, as in the infamous Russian roulette, it’s all about the spin…

The Czech Republic has been in the international spotlight again after President Miloš Zeman announced plans to attend the 2015 Victory Day military parade in Moscow, to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and acknowledge the huge Soviet loss of life arising out the liberation of what is now the Czech Republic.

At first sight, this might seem to be a no-brainer – after all, the Czech War Graves commission registers 97,325 Soviet war graves (compared to 279 American), which is a considerable sacrifice by anyone’s standards. Why shouldn’t these fallen be remembered?

The problem, of course, is that Russia today is receiving the international cold shoulder, thanks to its  annexation of the Crimea last year and Moscow’s continued military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. It doesn’t help that Victory Day tends to be where new Russian hardware appears first – this year will allegedly see new design howitzers, APVs and tanks on display.

It was left to the US Ambassador to Prague, Andrew Schapiro, to express the exasperation felt by other nations at this apparent attempt at rapprochement with Vladimir Putin. Speaking to Czech Television, he said that “standing on a platform reviewing a military parade at a time when that military is destabilizing a European nation is not really a good message to send.”

In a fit of pique at what he saw as unwarranted interference in his affairs, Zeman responded by barring the ambassador from making official visits to Prague Castle – a gesture that is perhaps more symbolic than practical given that the Czech head of state does not have an active role in government. The president took some criticism from both the Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and the Defence Minister Martin Stropnicky over the incident, and the Czech press too was generally unsupportive; there were even calls for him to apologise to the ambassador.

Zeman has however been a divisive figure for quite some time. He was regarded as a risky choice by foreign observers even at the beginning of his tenure in 2013. Over the last six months or so he has been criticised for using vulgar language to describe the Russian band Pussy Riot in a live broadcast, failing to invite certain university rectors to state occasions because of personal disputes, and claiming that the handicapped should not be integrated into regular schools. He is, then, no stranger to controversy, and his actions or personality have even stirred some Czechs into direct action – he was pelted with eggs on last year’s anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, and protesters holding red cards regularly turn up at his public engagements. 

This time around, however, the president didn’t get the last word. His trip to Moscow will be paid for not from Prague Castle’s budget, but from the Foreign Ministry’s, and the government is far more interested in preserving the country’s reputation in the West. A meeting was held, and the decision deferred… giving enough time, no doubt, for a compromise to be hashed out behind the scenes. Lo and behold, Zeman decided that he would not attend the parade after all, but would use his time in Moscow to lay a wreath and meet the Slovak president instead.

So in this particular game of Russian roulette, everyone seems to have dodged the bullet – Sobotka kept other EU leaders happy and his government’s reputation intact and Zeman garnered praise from the Russian Foreign Ministry, while Schapiro, despite the Czech president’s petulance, got what his government wanted. Privately, the Prime Minister is no doubt furious about having been put on the spot, the President annoyed about having his trip plans thwarted, and the Ambassador fuming by the sheer ridiculousness of having had to speak out publicly on such an issue… but publicly, at least, everybody wins.

Convoy Politics

Around 500 soldiers of 3rd Squadron, the U.S. 2nd Cavalry Regiment, are currently participating in the “Dragoon Ride“, a 13-day, 1,200 mile road trip from the Baltics back to their home base in Vilseck, Germany. It’s being billed as the longest such movement the United States Army has made across Europe since General Patton diverted his Third Army to relieve Bastogne, Belgium, in 1944. They’re on their way back from NATO’s Operation Atlantic Resolve, part of the effort to show that the alliance is properly committed to its easternmost members given the regional tensions arising from the Russian annexation of Crimea.

The 115 vehicles involved – primarily Stryker APCs and Humvees, with a smattering of tractor-trailers and other tactical trucks – entered the Czech Republic via three different border crossings on March 29th. Each of the three columns spent a night at a different host base before moving on to rendezvous in Prague on March 30th, with the aim of leaving the country with staggered departures on April 1st. The Czech Ministry of Defence has published a handy map of the route.

There’s no denying that it’s been good press. Although something of a debate preceded the convoy’s appearance, with some worried about provoking the Bear, the vast majority of people who turned out have been supportive. Around 2,000 people turned up at the Náchod border crossing to welcome the troops, with thousands more waiting in the rain for hours on highway bridges and along the route to watch the armour roll past. The anti-war and/or anti-American contingents – which may or may not be funded from Moscow, depending on whom you believe, were small by comparison, the only one of note appearing in Prague.

As Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, had hoped, there have been plenty of pictures of “kids crawling over those vehicles”, and hundreds have turned up to see the hardware on display in Prague.

In purely practical terms, Dragoon Ride is demonstrating – both to Russia and to NATO members – that it is in fact possible to move troops around Europe by road, and cope with the logistical and mechanical issues that will invariably arise during any operation of this scale.

The opportunity is also quietly being taken to test the effectiveness of cooperation with air support units, too – the aerial reconnaissance element of Dragoon Ride is being provided by helicopters of the US Army’s 12th Combat Aviation Brigade. This is not something the press coverage is stressing.

Lastly, of course, it’s proving that it’s possible to overcome the nightmare of having to coordinate a large scale movement across all the different countries and militaries concerned.

Politically, in addition to the obvious and stated aims, there is also some subtle downplaying of historical Russian involvement in the region going on. Visiting Plzeň (Pilsen) today to highlight the American liberation of that city in 1944 carefully overlooks the Soviet liberation of the vast majority of the country, for instance, which is guaranteed to annoy Moscow, so presumably from NATO’s perspective there is no actual downside.

It remains to be seen whether Dragoon Ride will leave any long-term legacy, unless it intended just as the first of many such exercises.

The NATO Fail

In preparation for the NATO summit that starts today, Bohuslav Sobotka, the Czech Prime Minister, wrote a stirring piece for Foreign Policy magazine on why NATO members need to step up to the plate in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. While evidently sincere, it is unfortunately flawed both in terms of how it sees the Czech Republic’s position within NATO today, and in considering NATO’s future.
First of all, the situation here is not as rosy as the PM would have us believe. He makes a great point, for example, of lauding the “Czech Republic’s constructive role in world affairs and security challenges around the globe”, before claiming that the Czech Republic’s defence spending will rise from just 1% of GDP last year to 1.4% by 2020. At the same time he ignores the fact that NATO members are expected to have a military budget of around 2% of GDP, and stresses the loss of Czech lives in Afgahnistan – which remain in single figures.
This hardly suggests a genuine commitment of the kind that the Prime Minister is calling for from others. On the other hand, he is at least not following the lead of the son of a former Czech defence minister, who is convinced that the West is actively setting up a war with Russia.
On a broader level, Sobotka also declines to discuss the need for a fundamental rethink of what NATO acually does. He is hardly alone in this – Admiral (retd.) James Stavridis, also writing recently, likewise sees NATO revitalisation in traditional terms. Established as a military alliance, the organisation still thinks primarily in the classical military manner – for example, in response to a Russian resurgence, there are plans for a ‘spearhead’ rapid reaction force to be established, with equipment caches around Central/Eastern Europe.
This is a wonderful example of the well-known strategy problem of ‘generals fighting the last war’ – it takes no account of the style of hybrid warfare now being practiced by the Russians, whereby the use of ground troops, special operations forces, cyber warfare, agents provocateurs and political maneuvering under cover of plausible deniability seek to shape facts on the ground without ever reaching the level of full-scale war. Ironically, the tactics of what the Russians call ‘maskirovna‘ (a masking of one’s true intentions), can be traced back to one of the oldest military treatises of all: Sun Tsu’s Art of War:
“when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near… If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them… Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand.”
NATO has in the past recognised its inability to adapt successfully to these new scenarios, but it is the political establishment that seems unwilling to make the changes necessary to do so.
Until and unless both the military and the politicians accept that military power by itself is insufficient to face down these ‘new’ threats, no progress will be made towards establishing a new balance of power in the region – which will lead to more instability, and greater threats to (for example) energy security and electronic infrastucture. It’s time to start taking these issues seriously.

Addendum: September 5th, 2014. 

The Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Gen. Phil Breedlove, has also now publicly stated that

“steps should be taken to help build the capacity of other arms of government, such as interior ministries and police forces, to counter unconventional attacks, including propaganda campaigns, cyberassaults or homegrown separatist militias.”

It’s clear that the military get this; the politicians now have to step up to the plate as well.

City of Intrigues

And then I said:

“The fight against corruption is and remains one of the
priorities of the Czech government under my leadership”
Petr Nečas (left, with President M. Zeman), Feb. 14th 2012

Photo: ČTK

In an earlier post, I referred to Prague as a ‘city of ghosts‘, and indeed there are tales a-plenty of hauntings and apparitions in the Czech capital. Equally, however, it is a city of intrigue – not just at the Cold War level of spies and shady arms deals with Omnipol, or within the 9/11 investigation and ‘War on Terror’, but also at a more human and more personal level.

Take Clive and Katka (not their real names), for example, to all appearances a model couple. Tall, good looking and affable, Clive was an English executive with a minor multinational, on a long-term placement in Prague. Katka was a stunningly attractive market analyst rapidly rising through the ranks at a major Czech bank. They had met and married some time before I and my Czech wife moved in to an apartment in the same building as theirs; having various things in common we became friends quite quickly.

One unusual feature of Clive and Katka’s relationship was that their offices were on opposite sides of the same street in central Prague, with the result that they could literally wave to each other during their working days. Why, under those circumstances, anyone would decide that embarking on an affair with their secretary was a good idea is beyond me, but this is, alas, what Clive did – but the tale doesn’t end as one might expect. Clive and his secretary went to great lengths to keep their relationship secret not only from their partners, but also from their colleagues – no getting caught in the stationery cupboard or by an indiscretion seen through the window for them! 

No, Clive’s fall came one fateful day when, having overslept after a ‘late night project meeting’ and in a rush to return to the office, he picked up the wrong mobile phone from the kitchen table… and Katka picked up his identical phone a few minutes later, without realising. When an SMS arrived shortly afterwards, she looked at it automatically, but hadn’t been expecting it to say words to the effect of “hey big boy, last night was great, let’s do it again on Thursday!”. Katka didn’t get mad, she got even, calling the sender and suggesting that they have lunch to talk over what was going on. Apparently the two got on well together; the secretary declaring that it was just a fling and that she had no long-term interest in Clive, Katka decided that she didn’t either, and kicked him out, much to the amusement of his colleagues.

Fast forward to 2013, and a similar scandal engulfed the Czech political scene. In June that year, police raids uncovered millions of dollars in currency and gold bullion of ‘suspicious origin’ during raids on aides, political contacts and lobbyists linked to then Prime Minister Petr Nečas. One of those subsequently accused of misconduct was Jana Nagyová, his chief of staff and close confidante – very close indeed, apparently, as she was also outed as the PM’s mistress, and charged with using military intelligence to keep tabs on the PM’s wife to make sure they weren’t caught out. Petr Nečas, who had come to power promising to clamp down on corruption in public life (see picture), was compelled to resign; he later married Ms Nagyová. The latter was found guilty of this gross abuse of office earlier this year, but received only a suspended prison sentence. A ringing endorsement of the anti-corruption drive, or of the seriousness of the courts, this was not.

Neither, however, does it say much about the level of fidelity in Czech marriages; a Pew survey in 2013 found that 17% of Czechs found infidelity socially acceptable, 5% more than the traditionally liberal French, and this is perhaps reflected in the divorce rate, which has hovered at around 50% for many years – five of the Czech Republic’s ten former prime ministers are divorcees, which means that in this at least they are truly representative of their constituencies!

So as you wander through the streets of this beautiful city, remember that a great deal is going on behind all of those mysterious closed doors…