The Czech Republic is on target to meet its Nato commitments – in terms of spending on defence, taking part in foreign missions in deadly hotspots such as Afghanistan, and countering new types of threats, from cyberwarfare to disinformation campaigns. In a wide-ranging interview, Czech Ambassador to Nato Jiří Šedivý takes stock of the many challenges ahead.
Over the past two years, Nato and the European Union have achieved an “unprecedented” level of cooperation, noted the military alliance’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, following the June meeting of the North Atlantic Council in a Defence Ministers’ session.
“This is natural. We have many shared members. We have shared interests and challenges and more than 90% of EU citizens live in a NATO country. So we have been working together on 74 concrete areas of cooperation, including hybrid and cyber, maritime operations, fighting terrorism, exercises and military mobility, and peace and security.”
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, pledging to meet the country’s commitments to bolster shared defence capabilities, has also called for Nato-EU cooperation to go a step further. To bring a halt to illegal migration, viewed as a destabilising factor, he said ahead of an official trip in late August to the “frontline” states of Italy and Malta, a comprehensive action plan for the entire EU is needed – and the Czech Republic is ready to prepare one.
That plan may involve an idea Mr. Babiš has floated of having the protection of EU borders transferred to the Nato level, in a bid to stem the tide of “illegal migrants”; this would be in addition to beefing up the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, known as Frontex, and giving it greater power.
“In Nato debates since 2015, at the peak of the refugee crisis, no ally proposed the direct involvement of Nato in the situation – not even those that were or are most exposed to that.”
At the start of a half-hour interview with Czech Ambassador to Nato Jiří Šedivý on the country’s current defence and strategic priorities, I began by asking him whether giving the military alliance a permanent role in patrolling EU borders was, in fact, something being discussed within Nato.
“First of all, in the alliance and in Nato debates since 2015, at the peak of the refugee crisis, no ally proposed the direct involvement of Nato in the situation – not even those that were or are most exposed to that, be it Italy, Greece or Hungary, in those times, or Spain. There is a shared understanding that the prime or first responder should be the European Union, which has the whole spectrum of relevant instruments for this, but also that the solution to the migration issue is not a military one, and migration is not a military threat.”
“At the same time – and it’s based on a Nato-EU declaration signed in 2016 – Nato supports the European Union’s activities in the Aegean Sea and in the central Mediterranean, the EU’s ‘Operation Sophia’, and Nato provides some support in terms of logistics and information sharing.”
‘Operation Sophia’ launched in June 2015 after a series of fatal shipwrecks in the Mediterranean involving migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, was tasked primarily to “identify, capture and dispose of vessels” used by migrant smugglers and traffickers off the Libyan coast. Nato is providing support to it via its ‘Operation Sea Guardian’. In the Aegean, Nato and the EU are also cooperating to counter people smuggling.
Such naval operations, of course, will never be central to the Czech Republic’s contribution to shared defence, as this a land-locked nation. However, Czechs have an expertise in countering chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats going back many decades, and are taking a prime role in combatting a newer generation of threats – stemming from forms of hybrid and cyber warfare, such as targeted disinformation campaigns from Russia and other actors.
“There is an increasingly systematic approach [in Nato and the EU] to countering the fake news, disinformation and propaganda.”
“First of all, this is another area that has been defined as a priority area for Nato-EU cooperation. In the Czech Republic, we established a centre for countering hybrid threats and terrorism a couple of years ago; in the European Union, there is the East StratCom team, and we have one Czech member on that team, a small team of around 14 people. And recently a Centre of Excellence for countering hybrid threats was established in Helsinki, jointly, by Nato and the EU, which we joined recently. So there are a lot of activities.”
“What’s important is – and, again, we are at the core of the activities of these centres – it’s producing sort of manuals on how to approach these challenges, best practices, lessons learned, how to, for example, identify false Facebook accounts, and how to discern and identify fake news as such. And indeed, there is a permanent exchange of information. We’ve seen recently that there is an increasingly systematic approach [in Nato and the EU] to countering the fake news, disinformation and propaganda.”
“This is important. But this is by and large sort of a reactive approach. What I think is at least as important as all these activities I’ve mentioned is a long-term effort to improve Internet and media literacy, critical thinking; to improve the capabilities to understand, analyse the texts; to discern facts from factoids, from ‘alternative facts’. And this is indeed a long run, and it should start in terms of programmes, already in basic schools. That’s a long-term challenge.”
Another long-term challenge for Nato, on the whole, is to meet the requirement agreed upon in 2006 that its 28 member states spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence. The Czech Republic is on track to meet that target in 2024, as confirmed at the Nato summit in July. In the near future, the military plans to buy a number of big-ticket items – such as new multipurpose helicopters, radar systems and combat vehicles, and aims to recruit more professional soldiers.
I asked Ambassador Šedivý about how the Czech Republic’s spending priorities, whether these have changed to meet new perceived threats, and whether there is any danger of spending too fast – “spending for spending’s sake” – simply to meet the 2% target in time.
“The spending priorities for the Czech Republic are, or have been, by and large, defined in the mid- and long-term strategy documents and doctrines, and indeed correspond to the priorities that are generated by the NATO defence planning process. We are about to, or we should finalise, the armament or rearmament of our ground forces, i.e. to achieve two full-fledged brigades. One is an armed brigade and the other a rapid-reaction, partially airborne brigade.”
“Then air forces – and here, above all, helicopters, air defence, radars. With the helicopters and radars, that is still concerning replacing the legacy systems, the Soviet-type platforms. There is much more, but these are the most visible – and also most expensive areas where we should now actually start investing in.”
“I’m afraid that our problem is not spending too fast, but that we are not able to realise those projects in time; that our procedures are too complicated.”
“In view of new threats, or the current security environment, there is definitely a need to invest more in cyber defence, and we within the military intelligence are preparing to create active defence capability, which is very important. Then, electronic warfare, and here the Czech Republic has a very sophisticated system of passive radio locaters – Věra radars – which are also able to serve as a system in electronic warfare.”
“Another area, which I think is now much more important than we could have imagined just a couple of years ago, is the domain of unmanned vehicles, be it ground or airborne. And last but not least, special operation forces. So, these four or five areas I believe should be propped up in view of new security threats or emerging risks.”
In August, the Czech Army signed contracts for supplies worth over 11 billion crowns (for the delivery of 80 armoured nuclear, biological and chemical reconnaissance vehicles in 2020-2022 for 5.1 billion, 62 Titus armoured trucks for 6 billion). In the coming weeks, according to Defence Minister Lubomír Metnar, tenders will be launched for 210 infantry fighting vehicles for 53 billion and for helicopters for some 10 billion. In the medium term, the army also plans to buy eight Israeli Mobile Air Defence Radars (MADR) and two Czech-made Věra NG passive-radar systems to support Nato missions, for billions of crowns more.
“Whether there is a threat of a sort of overheating, or spending too fast, just ‘for spending’s sake’, I’m afraid that our problem, actually, is that we are not able to realise those projects in time; that our procedures are too complicated. So it’s rather a problem of spending slowly. And here I’m a bit afraid that, actually, we have already missed an opportunity over the past three, four years when we’ve had very robust economic growth. So, the money was there, but no big projects, procurement or acquisition projects, were realised. And sooner or later, the economic cycle will change and we hit another recession. That’s my concern, actually, that in four or five years, perhaps, we may be looking back and regretting that we were not spending enough now.”
And that’s nearly exactly the timeline that’s laid out – five, six years – to meet the 2 per cent target.
“Yes, exactly. The 2024 target. What is important is that 2 per cent alone tells you nothing. What is important is that of that 2 per cent at least 20 per cent goes into modernisation investments. And indeed what is also important is from what base you deduce that 2 per cent – and here, there is a paradox of growth, which is what Prime Minister Andrej Babiš tried to explain to President Trump at the July summit, that although in relative terms we have increased by only 0.1 or 0.2 per cent, in real terms, over the period 2014 to 2019, actually our defence budget will increase 50 per cent.”
So in the Czech case, as Ambassador Šedivý explains, not only the absolute level of spending should be taken into account but also the base from which that spending began, and the state of the economic spending it. That said, a large spending spree is underway.
“The suicide bombing was, I would say, the ultimate reminder of what’s at stake in Afghanistan… But the alternative would be much worse.”
But as is so often noted, the ultimate military price – the ultimate sacrifice – is paid in terms of human life. In early August, three Czech servicemen serving in Nato’s “Resolute Support” mission were killed in eastern Afghanistan by a suicide bomber while conducting a joint foot patrol with U.S. and local soldiers.
In total, approximately 230 Czech service members are now stationed in Afghanistan as part of the 16,000-strong non-combat mission training and advising the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces. This spring, the Czech government had approved a plan to deploy another 160 there through 2020, as well and to reinforce the country’s military presence in Iraq and Mali.
So did the suicide bombing in August change anything?
“It definitely has not changed the resolve to support further the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan. We will deliver what we promised in terms of increasing the numbers. And that increase in our contribution in Afghanistan was based on a direct request from the operational commander and US Secretary of Defence James Mattis. That’s the first thing.”
“It increased awareness of Afghanistan and the risks of being there, indeed. And it was also, I would say, the ultimate reminder of what’s at stake there. And the discussions around this were – absolutely understandably, many people were saying, ‘Why should we be there when our best people are killed there; there is apparently no progress. It’s a long-term commitment. It will be dangerous. And so on and so forth. So it was also a good opportunity to discuss why – the ultimate sense, also, of being there.”
“And here we must be realistic. We are there indeed to prevent a repetition of the situation when Afghanistan was sort of a free area for terrorist groups – Al Qaeda was operating globally from Afghanistan. It’s also to keep in mind that we are there not to occupy the country – not at all, actually to the contrary; we are there to help the local authorities and armed security forces to develop their own capacity to keep the country stable and cope with the security threats. And once we achieve this, we will leave.”
“But it’s a long run, and we are there for years and years to come. But the alternative would be much worse because, under current circumstances, the country would be quite soon back in chaos and internal wars and indeed very fertile ground for terrorism – and other phenomena, such as migration from the country.”