Defence minister downplays NATO convoy protests

US Army's 2nd Cavalry Regiment during the military exercise in Lithuania, photo: CTK

Czech Minister of Defence Martin Stropnický has downplayed criticism of a NATO military convoy set to traverse Czech territory on Sunday. The convoy is designed as a show of force on the military alliance’s eastern flank, but has met with opposition from some Czechs, sensitive to the idea of any foreign troops on their soil.

US Army's 2nd Cavalry Regiment during the military exercise in Lithuania,  photo: CTK
The convoy comprises 120 vehicles and 520 soldiers. Having begun its journey in the Baltic, it is set to cross over from Poland on Sunday via three separate border crossings – Harrachov, Náchod and Bohumín, before meeting up in Prague and then heading westwards towards Plzeň. Overall, the troops will be spending four days in the Czech Republic before heading to a military base in Germany.

Major General František Malenínský described the official plans: “Each convoy will be comprised of around 40 vehicles. We also decided to further break up the convoys into three sub-convoys. There will be a thirty minute interval between the passage of each, enabling us to ascertain that no problems exist in terms of traffic.”

Yet the presence of such a visible display of foreign troops has also aroused opposition from certain quarters, most vocal of which are the Czech communist party.

Martin Stropnický,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Additionally, a self-declared leader of opposition to the convoy, pro-Russian activist Jiří Vyvadil, has been using social media to organise support for blockades and disruptions. The Czech army has been tasked with protecting NATO’s trip, with potential trouble spots already identified. Yet for all the talk of potential troubles, authorities also expect plenty of supporters and also military hardware enthusiasts to line the route.

According to Czech Television, last year, 131 similar convoys traversed Czech territory without controversy. Speaking to the station, Czech defence minister Martin Stropnický downplayed Czech objections to the military manoeuvre, formally part of operation Atlantic Resolve: “News stories which are controversial and juicy will tend to get more coverage. And so I would not over-estimate the strength of the critical voices. Yes, they are loud and skilled in gaining attention. But in one paper I read a poll saying that 80 percent of Czechs have no problems with the convoy, 16 percent are against and the rest have no opinion.”

Photo: CTK
Czech media have noted the contrasts between the opposing voices coming from the Czech Republic and the near unanimous support for the military exercises coming from the post-Soviet Baltic states, where troops have found themselves being cheered by onlookers, wary of the threat from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Lauren Lybbert, an American logistics officer, spoke to Czech Television in Lithuania: “This is definitely the biggest operation I’ve been a part of. It’s a great way to test our operational reach, see what we can do, and then work with our NATO partners.”