20 Years of Czechia in NATO: Key Moments

Czech soldiers in Afghanistan

Czechs are looking back at 20 years in NATO. Their country joined the Alliance together with Hungary and Poland on March 12, 1999. Since then NATO has grown significantly and undertaken several major international military operations. Vít Pohanka highlights the most important developments in the Alliance over that time and how the Czech Republic participated in them.

Czech soldiers in Kosovo,  photo: archive of Czech Army
The official ceremonies and celebrations of NATO enlargement had barely ended in March 1999 when the Alliance started one of the biggest operations in its history. The crisis in Kosovo had been brewing for some time. Predominantly Serbian armed forces stood accused of ethnic cleansing directed against local Albanians. Despite international diplomatic efforts, the government of president Slobodan Miloševič refused to come to terms with the insurgents of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The bloodshed continued and thousands of ethnic Albanians were fleeing the country. On 24th of March NATO countries led by the United States started bombing Yugoslavia. Then US president Bill Clinton had this to say:

“Our mission is clear: to demonstrate the seriousness of NATO’s purpose. So that the Serbian leaders understand the imperative of reversing course. To deter an even bloodier offensive against innocent civilians in Kosovo. An, if necessary, to seriously damage the Serbians’ military capacity, to harm the people of Kosovo. In short, if President Miloševič will not make peace, we will limit his ability to make war.”

Operation Allied Force (as it was officially code named) did not have the approval of the United Nations Security Council where Russia and China refused to sanction it. So President Clinton was at pains to explain why the air campaign was necessary.

New York,  September 11,  2001,  photo: Michael Foran,  CC BY 2.0
The Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary were not asked to participate in the operation. After all, for Hungary, it meant that the bombing was directed at its neighbor. Many Czech politicians openly criticized the decision to attack Yugoslavia, including Václav Klaus, then Speaker of the House of Deputies who would later become the Czech president. Nevertheless, the Czech Republic opened its air space to NATO planes and the government officially agreed with the action. Once Yugoslavia withdrew its troops and the bombing stopped, the Czech Army took an active role in the Kosovo Force or KFOR for short. The Czech Task Force remained deployed in Kosovo for the next 12 years.

While the Balkans kept diplomats and the European military busy in the 1990s, the twenty-first century started with a shock that some predicted, but nobody was prepared for. The Al-Qaida attacks on the United States on September 11,2001 shook not just America but the whole world. All of a sudden it became clear that NATO must prepare for a new kind of threat and warfare. “Transformation” became the operative word right at the time when Prague was preparing to host a NATO summit in 2002. It was to be first such highest-level Alliance meeting in a post-communist country. The Prague NATO summit started as planned. Then secretary general of NATO George Robertson outlined the main agenda:

“Prague is the transformation summit. It is a truly defining moment for the North Atlantic Alliance. We will welcome new members, take on new missions, modernize our military capabilities, and strengthen our relations with friends and partners throughout the Euro-Atlantic area. By doing so we will re-enforce that essential trans-Atlantic bond on which our security and defense still depends.”

The Czech Republic together with Hungary and Poland supported NATO’s further enlargement eastward. The Prague Summit invited 7 countries to become members: the three Baltic Republics, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovenia.

Czech soldiers in Afghanistan | Photo: Czech Army
Thus, the officially declared goal of the Czech Republic that NATO should not stop at its borders was achieved, even though the new member states formally joined the Alliance nearly two years later in 2004. The Prague NATO summit concluded with declarations of unity, but the Alliance was already split about the US-led invasion of Iraq in March of next year.

Like the strikes against Yugoslavia four years earlier, the US-led invasion of Iraq was not sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. France and Germany openly refused to support the military action against the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Czech political representation was once again split. But during his last weeks in office then president Václav Havel signed the so-called “Letter of Eight” – a message of eight European heads of states and governments that backed the US stance. Even though it was not a NATO operation, the Czech Army sent a specialized chemical unit to Kuwait as the invasion was looming. But when it became apparent that there was no threat of weapons of mass destruction, the Czech Republic maintained a low-level military presence in Iraq until the end of 2008.

Another issue that for some time defined the relations of the Czech Republic with NATO and its allies was the intended missile defense system. It was supposed to shield the member state from a potential attack from the Middle East, Czechia was supposed to host a radar and Poland an anti-missile base. Then US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice came to Prague and signed a treaty with her counterpart Karel Schwarzenberg.

However, there was strong opposition to the radar in the Czech Republic, not just among politicians but the general public. People took to the streets of Prague and other big cities to protest against the radar.

Jiří Šedivý,  photo: archive of Czech Foreign Ministry
In 2009, the newly-elected US president Barack Obama ditched the plan to build a radar in the Czech Republic. Instead, the United States developed a slightly different system with a missile interceptor based in Romania.

Throughout the past two decades, the Czech Republic has taken part in various international NATO operations. It has been present very visibly especially in Afghanistan where it lost several soldiers to terrorist attacks. Even though Czechia has been spending less than two percent of its GDP on defense, the Czech ambassador to NATO Jiří Šedivý argues that it is an active member of the Alliance.

“I don’t feel any weakening. Despite the relatively low input we have a very respectable output in the terms of our contribution to NATO operations. We are still the 7th highest contributor to the mission in Afghanistan, we deployed units in Lithuania and Latvia. Later this year, we will be policing the airspace of the Baltic Republics from Estonia.”

There is broad consensus in the political and public sphere that the Czech Republic should remain in NATO and should gradually increase its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024.