One would perhaps expect that as a former Soviet Bloc country for roughly two generations, the Czech historical experience with Russian imperialism would translate into a security policy consensus on Russia. As has been bluntly shown by the Ukraine crisis, this notion could not be further from reality.
Importantly, the beginning of the Ukraine crisis has coincided with parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic and the formation of a new center-left government. The social democrats have become the ruling party after almost eight long years in opposition, and the Czech Republic has been sending mixed signals regarding NATO’s reaction to resurgent Russia ever since.
Czech participation in NATO’s reassurance measures has to date been exemplary, even pledging Czech Special Forces to the 2015 Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJFT) part of the NATO Response Force. On the other hand, the Czech government has clearly refused to frame these steps as a deterrent vis-à-vis Russia, which has put the Czech stance in contrast to almost all Eastern European countries in NATO (with the exception of Slovakia and Hungary).
Moreover, the government is actively refuting any Russian threat to the Czech Republic, leading to a conclusion that no NATO bases in the Czech Republic are necessary. It has also called for caution with regard to NATO’s steps aimed at strengthening NATO’s eastern flank – effectively following the principle of “non-provocation” towards Russia. The similarities to the German principle that “security in Europe is only possible with Russia, not against it” are striking.
The end result policy resembles a mixture of “reliable ally” steps and Ostpolitik-like rhetoric that confuses not only the Americans and the Poles, but also the Georgians and the Ukrainians. All the more so when the prime minister speaks about NATO enlargement and openly mentions that it should not come at the expense of Europe’s relations with Russia, as he did in the Czech parliament in late September 2014.
One could therefore ask if the two main distinctive features – a “hawkish” stance on Russia and continuous support for NATO enlargement – of the Czech security policy within the NATO are crumbling? The answer is probably yes. But that should not come as a big surprise considering that these were never consensual in the first place. They have become the perceived “Czech brand” thanks to a combination of the “new Europe” narrative coined by Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 and right-leaning governments in power most of the time between 2006 and 2013.
In 2013 the political pendulum swung back and the Ukraine crisis laid bare the absence of consensus on Russia. Should we be worried? In a sense, this could potentially be a good thing. Its international partners are clearly signaling to Prague to get its act together, which should in turn trigger strategic discussions between the center-left ruling coalition and the right-wing opposition. The question remains whether the Czech political elite will seize this opportunity to forge a new security policy consensus. We certainly need one.