Defence Minister backtracks on NATO presence

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The Czech Republic’s defence minister, Martin Stropnický, has something of a political storm on his hands, following an interview in which he suggested it would be problematic for NATO forces to be stationed in the Czech Republic. The minister made the mistake of comparing the situation to 1968, when Soviet troops invaded the country, raising the ire of both the prime minister as well as the centre-right opposition. He has since backtracked but the damage was effectively done.

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Since Russian intervention began in Ukraine leading to the annexation of Crimea, NATO has rediscovered its purpose: and member states bordering Russia, Poland and the Baltic states, have welcomed up to 600 personnel on the ground. These represent at the very least a reminder to an increasingly antagonistic Russia not to overstep its bounds. The Czech Republic, supportive of increased sanctions, appears out of step with regards to NATO, thanks largely to an interview by the defence minister in which he suggested a long term presence by foreign troops would be problematic. Here’s what the defence minister told the Reuters news agency on Monday:

Martin Stropnický,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“I think that the long-term or permanent presence of any foreign troops would be a problem. I belong to the generation which remembers 80,000 Soviet troops stationed here during the Normalisation period and I think it still remains a psychological problem.”

The defence minister did say he couldn’t rule out NATO personnel being stationed, but made clear he preferred boosting the alliance’s presence through other means and different forms of cooperation. But his choice of words regarding 1968 did not go unnoticed, drawing a harsh response from Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, who called Mr Stropnický’s statement a “huge mistake”.

“It was very unfortunate and I think that it only complicates communication with our NATO partners.”

Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: Filip Jandourek
The prime minister followed up by saying that Mr Stropnický had badly hurt his own reputation, at the same time admitting he would not be recalling him from his post. The prime minister also made clear foreign personnel on the ground was not the order of the day. But the Czech cooperation in helping protect Baltic air space, a subject which Sobotka recently discussed with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Regarding future threats and Russian expansionism, the prime minister told journalists on Tuesday it was impossible to know how the security situation could change in the near future – pointing out that few expected the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia, either. For that reason, Mr Sobotka made clear that no options could be taken off the table.

Members of the centre-right opposition, meanwhile, went further in their condemnation of the minister, slamming him for ‘forgetting’ the Czech Republic has been a NATO member for 15 years.