Sunday, June 16, 2024
 
 

Check the Czechs

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With the Czech Republic having the dubious honor of hosting the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the West versus Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the new Cold War, all eyes have recently been turned to Prague.

High diplomatic drama has been enacted since Czech intelligence uncovered hard evidence that the identities of the perpetrators behind the detonation of military supplies in 2014 were the same two operatives from Russia’s GRU intelligence services who attempted to eliminate former FSB agent-turned-informer-for-British intelligence, Sergei Skripal, in England in 2018 with a chemical nerve agent has been a catalyst for addressing thorny internal issues in the Czech Republic; principally about the geopolitical alignment of the country’s president, Milos Zeman, who for years has been widely seen as the most pro-Putin of any of the European Union’s leaders.

Pavel Havlicek, a Research Fellow at the Asociace pro mezinarodni otazky )Association for International Affairs) gives his thoughts on the events. 

New Europe (NE): With the investigation still ongoing and new details continually emerging, can you provide your own assessment of the situation? 

Pavel Havlicek (PH): I subscribe to the official version, which was presented by the government, and then backed by the law enforcement bodies and the highest prosecutor, Pavel Zeman. They spoke about the GRU’s involvement during the crucial days of the events seven years ago, their registration for the visit of the ammo depots, and the explosions that followed afterwards. The detonation was likely meant to happen only later, and the first explosion was accidental (the second explosion only took place several weeks after). The line is closely connected to Bulgaria and Gebrev, as was revealed by RFE/RL, which backs the official version about the transport of the goods to Ukraine via Bulgaria.

NE: What was the reaction from the Czech public – was it a shock for the country?

PH: Yes, it was an enormous shock and surprise. Nobody really expected this, even if there were some suspicions at some levels of the GRU’s involvement for the past three weeks.

NE: According to the latest information, the GRU team might have had Czech citizen accomplices who were arrested – how deep does the Kremlin influence go on Czech soil? Are Kremlin operatives active in spreading Russian propaganda and fake news? Are they attempting to influence political parties through funding or covert endorsement? 

PH: This is an excellent question, but really hard to give a definite answer to. We know that the Czech intelligence and specialised police unit responsible for fighting organised crime (the NCOZ) consequently launched an operation against paramilitary units responsible for transporting people to the so-called separatist territories in Ukraine’s Donbass region, by which they directly and indirectly (financially) supported terrorism. Five people were accused of crimes related to terrorism. An additional ten were brought to investigation. This only illustrates the extent of the operation of the Russian intelligence units on Czech territory, but the whole scope of activities remains unknown, at least publicly. 

Czech President Milos Zeman (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speak with each other during their bilateral meeting in Sochi, Russia. EPA-EFE/.MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK

NE: How will this impact the relationship between the Czech Republic and Russia, especially considering the current Czech leadership’s reputation as one of the most Pro-Kremlin in all Europe?

PH: Quite fundamentally, even the otherwise rather pro-Russian politicians (such as the president, Milos Zeman) have supported the government’s line, even if we now see more siding with alternative scenarios, especially from the side of the extreme political forces (like the Communists, or the Far Right). In any case, the Czech-Russia official bilateral track of relations is, and will be for the time being, paralyzed. The consequences are also going beyond politics and diplomacy, with Russia´s Rosatom company now having been excluded from the nuclear Dukovany-II tender. 

NE: The Czech Republic requested solidarity expulsions of Russian diplomats from the EU and NATO as a sign of support. You received verbal support, but the actual response was fairly underwhelming. Why did the Czech request fell on deaf ears? 

PH: Two things on this one. First, it is still an ongoing quest for support. We have so far received practical support from the three Baltic countries and Slovakia, which together expelled seven diplomats. Other countries, including the US and UK, were very expressive in their official support, but they have their own situations; the US expelled 10 diplomats for their own domestic affair, but just today summoned the charge-de-affairs to blame him for the affair in the Czech Republic. It is similar for Poland, which has expelled three Russians already. Support was also received from the Visegrad 4 group, initiated by Slovakia and its Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok. Finally, Germany and Lithuania promised to support the Czech Republic in Russia by their diplomatic missions, which is also significant. But there could be much more on the EU and NATO level, this is true.

NE: Over the Skripal case, the US imposed additional sanctions at the request of the UK. Will/should Prague be demanding new sanctions, how realistic is that?

PH: Yes, I think Prague should be ambitious and keep asking for a coordinated response on the EU and NATO levels, as well as from individual member states. As mentioned previously, it took Theresa May around 2-3 weeks to negotiate a robust response from the global community, which ultimately meant that 33 Russian diplomats were expelled from the European Union. We are so far at seven, plus there are an additional three from Poland for a separate case. I believe that more should be done, but we are slowly and surely getting there. Finally, I can imagine Prague asking for a special emergency EU Council, but it will more likely take place on May 7, where the prime minister will ask for additional measures and an EU response. On the NATO question, the NAC has already been summoned and delivered a common statement, which is not very ambitious but illustrates NATO’s support for the Czech Republic, which still counts.

NE: Chancellor Merkel stated that “the politization of Nord Stream 2 pipeline is harmful”: is that an indirect answer to a silent plea from Prague towards Germany to take its side?

PH: As usual, the Germans and German diplomacy prefer to go a different way and get more things at the same time. On the one hand, they support the Czech Republic, as Heiko Maas has done already, and offered their help with Russia directly, but at the same time, they insist on their own priorities and interests, which is harming the common European line on this.

NE: So far, the most robust Czech response amounted to the exclusion of the Rosatom company from the list of participants for the completion of the Dukovany nuclear power plant. For the Russian state-owned company, this means the loss of a potential contract of at least $6 billion. Do you expect any mirror-response from Russia on this front, similar to their reaction of expelling Czech diplomats?

PH: This is yet to be seen. Many experts and Russia watchers say that this will not happen because of Russian domestic and economic problems, and since there could be a stronger reaction from the European Union’s side (such as additional systemic/economic sanctions etc) and we know that the Russian economy and rouble did not react well to the US sanctions related to the debt issue. But there were already some speculations about banning particular goods, which I could imagine. Also, it might be now more difficult for Czech companies to operate on the Russian markets for the sake of its politicization, along with the lack of rule of law and market conditions and the like.

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