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.

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.

Red or Dead: the Russian Levers in Central Europe

It’s time that those living in Central Europe woke up to Russia’s new tactics for projecting its interests abroad – especially since the press is generally unwilling to connect the dots.
The Bear has adopted what has come to be called the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, moving away from visions of large-scale warfare to reflect a world of smaller-scale military and economic conflicts. In addition to using such obvious economic levers as gas and oil to influence the policies and behaviour of countries like the Czech Republic, we are now also seeing a return to – and the further development of – some classic Cold War-era techniques.
Foremost among these is the tactical support of non-governmental and non-profit organisations whose aims align with those of Moscow. The Czech BIS (secret service) warned in its 2007 annual report that Russian intelligence services attempted to influence politicians and the media to increase public opposition to a planned US radar base. More recently, NATO’s secretary general has issued a warning about Russian support for the anti-fracking movement across Europe.
Russia itself remains sensitive to Western support for NGO’s in Central/Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union for similar reasons – after all, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland apparently claimedsome $5 Billion had been sent to help the Ukrainian opposition before the regime change. It should therefore be no surprise to see Moscow employing similar tactics around the region, albeit on a more limited scale.
The question is how much of this effort will go towards actual destabilisation rather than just influencing policy. A destabilised country is less able to confront geopolitical threats because its attention is occupied by internal disputes, and particularly for smaller countries, their limited governmental bandwidth may take some time to recover. From Jobbik in Hungary to the French National Front, Vladimir Putin has already won many admirers on the European right – it would be a relatively small step for Moscow to start supporting the far right in places like the Czech Republic, where demonstrations (and sometimes violence) from such groups are already well on the way to becoming commonplace. A resulting uptick in anti-Roma sentiment in the general population was noted by the BIS in 2013. A revitalised radical right, supported from the East, could only lead to a further deterioration in the social situation.
At the same time, new technologies can also be exploited to create instability. In Bulgaria this year, two major financial institutions were forced to seek government protection after text messages, e-mails and phone calls were used to trigger runs on the country’s third and fourth-largest banks. While there is no proof (beyond the coincidence of its following the dropping of support for the South Stream pipeline) that this project was sponsored by a foreign government, it highlights a weakness that might in future be exploited by a tech-savvy opponent with access to an effective local network.
In the realms of cyberspace, it is well known that the Kremlin has form in encouraging both state and nominally independent players to agitate for its interests – just this month it managed to penetrate Ukrainian government servers and Ukrainian embassies across Europe, according to the Financial Times. We’re clearly not just talking about distributed denial of service attacks any more, but rather deliberate penetration by specially prepared malware, intended either to embarass the target and/or pilfer sensitive information. In the post-Snowden world, it would be naive to expect the US to have a monopoly on such behaviour.
Back in the real world, corruption opens many doors. Where there is a willingness to accept ‘lobbying fees’ from special interest groups without enquiring too closely as to the source of the money, there will obviously be space for foreign governments to attempt to manipulate not only local but also national policy. This risk too has been highlighted by the Czech BIS, for example in its annual report from November last year.
Lastly, there is the question of ‘protecting Russian interests’, which has not only been used as cover for the very obvious interventions in Georgia and the Crimea, but which also provides a means for pressuring national governments in any country with a sizeable Russian minority. According to the last census, there were over 17,000 Russians and 53,000 Ukrainians (ethnicity unknown) living in the Czech Republic in 2011. The sizeable contingent of Russians in Karlovy Vary is a cliché, but there are also well established communities in places like Prague and Plzeň. These offer a very convenient excuse for meddling under the guise of ‘concern’ – especially since expatriate umbrella organisations are also suspected by the BIS of having being thoroughly infiltrated by Russian agents. It also remains to be seen how many of these long-term and permanent residents will attempt to gain dual Czech citizenship, and thus voting rights, now that this has become possible. Certainly, there were a lot of Russians and Belarussians present when I went to take my own language and civics exams for the same purpose.
In summary, then, Russian influence over the economy, public/international policy and social framework is not only growing, it is crucial to how Russia now sees international relations as being shaped. It is no longer enough to think of this in theoretical terms: it’s time to open our eyes and recognise what is already happening. Unless we do so, it might not be possible to stop it.