Expert: NATO membership makes Czechs safer than at any time

Michal Smetana

Czechia, along with Poland and Hungary, joined NATO exactly 25 years ago, on March 12, 1999. But how has Czech membership of the alliance actually gone over the last quarter century? And how has Russia’s war on Ukraine impacted that membership? I discussed those questions, and many more, with Michal Smetana, an international security expert and associate professor at Charles University.

Czechia officially joined NATO on March 12, 1999. How significant a moment was that for Czechia?

“It was extremely significant for Czechoslovakia and then Czechia, at that time. This was a period when we were going through a transformation from the communist era to a new orientation toward Western structures.

“This was one of the first official signs that we are part of the West, and not the East.”

“And NATO was the first political/military structure that we wanted to be a part of. Remember, this was still five years before we acceded to the European Union.

“So this was one of the first official signs that we are part of the West, and not the East, as we used to be.”

Yes, this was just 10 years after the Czechs were part of the Eastern Bloc. How ready were the Czechs to join NATO in 1999? Were there any teething problems initially?

“In 1999 they were ready, but they were not ready in the early 1990s. Acceding to NATO required reforms, first of all the military reforms which were necessary, but also political reforms, overall.

“It wasn’t obvious that we would accede to NATO at all, and it wasn’t obvious that we would accede to NATO in the 1990s.”

“It wasn’t such an easy process as it may seem now. It wasn’t obvious that we would accede to NATO at all, and it wasn’t obvious that we would accede to NATO already in the 1990s.

“Mind that the Czech Republic acceded to NATO in 1999 but Slovakia did not, in particular because of the political reforms that were not completed because of different political issues connected to the government of Vladimír Mečiar, and other problems there that were more on the political side.

Czech soldiers during a NATO exercise | Photo: Gertrud Zach,  United States Army,  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“So it wasn’t that easy. The military reforms were quite comprehensive. And it was challenging to transform our military from a Soviet-era military that was part of the Warsaw Pact to a military that was interoperable with NATO, that had a doctrine that was in line with what other NATO countries had, that had procurement practices, that had equipment that would be standardised with NATO.

“So it took some time. It took lot of investment, which again wasn’t easy after the communist mandate in our country. But yes, in 1999 we were ready.”

You were quite young of course, but how much of a pro-NATO mood was there in Czechia in those days, do you think? Also, how much was Václav Havel driving this push to get into NATO?

“Yes, definitely Václav Havel was a key person here, as was Madeleine Albright, who was on the US side, but Bill Clinton often jokingly said that we had two ambassadors: the one in Washington, and then Madeleine Albright, who was really trying to push this agenda on our behalf in the US.

“Bill Clinton often jokingly said that we had two ambassadors: the one in Washington, and then Madeleine Albright.”

“Generally sentiment was positive towards NATO. Of course there were issues. I was young in 1999, but I remember it quite vividly and I was very much interested in politics at the time.

“And remember what was happening in 1999: There was the conflict in Kosovo, where NATO was directly involved. And this was controversial for many people. It was controversial for me at the time.

“It was an issue that everybody had to grapple with of course – that we were acceding to NATO at a time when many questioned whether this was what NATO should be doing.

“In 1999 there was the conflict in Kosovo, where NATO was directly involved. This was controversial for many people.”

“But yes, the overall support was there. And today when we look at the polls – despite all the debate about some segments of the population looking more towards the East than the West – still a majority of the population supports NATO. Actually the recent numbers I’ve seen are really high.”

How has Czechia developed or matured as a member over those two and a half decades?

“I believe we did. One of the key aspects is specialisation. We have been known for our specialty of CBRN defence: Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons defence. That’s a specialty of our some of our units that has been very much appreciated in NATO.

Photo: Brian Chaney,  United States Army,  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“Overall we have matured in the sense that now, very recently, we finally managed to pass the 2 percent threshold of GDP investment into defence, which has been a long-time complaint of those who were actually contributing these percentages.

“At some point, the majority of member states weren’t doing that. Now the trend is reversed; now a majority of member states are contributing 2 percent.”

But the Czechs are planning to do it – they’re not actually doing it yet, right?

“Yes, that is correct. But we have got to somewhere where we haven’t been since the 1990s and the new plan is to get to 2 percent.

“Our profile is now partly stronger with respect to our involvement in the war in Ukraine.”

“Overall we are considered a valuable member, as far as I can tell from my discussions with NATO officials and foreign experts.

“I guess our profile is now partly stronger with respect to our involvement in the war in Ukraine, where of course we are not the largest contributor – not at all – but we have been very strong supporters of Ukraine.

“We are perceived that way, generally. Eastern flank countries are generally considered to be very close supporters of Ukraine, and many member states do appreciate it.”

Actually I wanted to ask you, what has the war in Ukraine meant for NATO in general?

“Overall I would say that the level of unity is fairly high. If somebody had asked me that six months before the invasion, I wouldn’t predict such a high level of unity.

“But of course it’s not absolute. We have members like Hungary or Turkey which are not necessarily holding the line the whole time. And then we have some countries where the political dynamics actually tilted them towards a, let’s say, more sceptical stance towards a united NATO front, such as Slovakia, for example, quite recently.”

What about 2014 – was the NATO reaction sufficient, considering what the Russians did?

“No, it wasn’t. The NATO reaction wasn’t sufficient and the EU reaction wasn’t sufficient.

“It was a shock, nevertheless, that led to some, let’s say, new strategic thinking.

“And we saw that very vividly in 2022, because we were not ready. Overall Europe, even now, two years after the war started, is not ready for a large conventional conflict. And we need to up our game in order to be able to.”

You’ve already touched on this, but what has the war in Ukraine meant for Czechia’s position in the alliance?

“My understanding, again from my discussions with NATO officials and experts from different neighbour states, is that our profile is higher, with respect to political involvement.

Petr Pavel | Photo: Kateřina Šulová,  ČTK

“Recently quite a big news story for us, as a country that is trying to box above its weight, is this recent initiative of President Pavel to secure 800,000 pieces of artillery ammunition for Ukraine, at a time when Ukraine is really suffering from shell hunger on different segments on the front, and this actually shows on the front quite vividly.

“Some of these, let’s say, creative solutions are more clever than something based on our economic capacity or military capacity. It really gives us the image of a country that can find creative solutions. And yes, generally it’s widely appreciate.”

Given the situation in Ukraine, people sometimes talk about Article 5 of the NATO treaty. What do you think would happen in reality if the Russians tried some kind of attack against a NATO state neighbouring Russia?

“This is a question that keeps many people awake at night.

“Overall, I believe that in the current state of affairs – with the US administration as we have it, and with European administrations in the key states as they are – the threat of not helping any single NATO ally, and the consequences that would have for collective defence and collective security in the trans-Atlantic space, would have such a grave effect that there would be a huge, huge push towards actively defending any NATO member.

“Of course there are a lot of problems connected with that. It’s not that Russia would be stronger than NATO; NATO is a considerably stronger power overall than Russia.

“We are very much reliant on the US for any such defence of European NATO members.”

“But it very much depends on the capability of really reacting fast, for example, to any threat. It’s also connected with the threat of escalation, which could go so far as to the nuclear level.

“So these are the obvious concerns that NATO planners have all the time, even in a situation where NATO is stronger.

“Of course there are a lot of issue with European countries not being as capable as intervening as the US, so we are very much reliant on the US for any such defence of European NATO members.

“But overall, yes, the political push would be there to defend any single NATO country.”

Sometimes we hear talk about the possibility of a European army that would run alongside NATO in some way. What is the Czech position on a potential European army some day?

“One thing is the Czech position, the other one is who is currently in the government.

“But I would say that overall there are many important parties that are somewhat sceptical. It’s not that they would be blocking any European-wide initiatives, but let’s say there is a lot of concern as to what extent a purely European solution would be weakening NATO.

“Like many member states, they believe – and I do too – that these things are not mutually exclusive: that we can have a strong NATO and a European solution.

“The concern at NATO for a long time was that Europe wasn’t able to secure its defence by itself. But there are some concerns, in many political parties, that some European solution might weaken the trans-Atlantic link, which is still considered among them to be the key aspect of NATO.

“It’s time to talk about European solutions to defence without US involvement.”

“There has been a lot of concern about America drifting apart. At the same time, I believe today we should be looking at the whole situation from a very different angle.

“Because there is a real danger and threat that actually very soon. It might be the US that would decide to, if not withdraw from NATO altogether, then at least to put more focus elsewhere and to be less committed to European defence.

“I’m obviously talking about the possibility that Donald Trump will win the next US presidential elections. That means that it’s actually about time to talk about European solutions to defence without US involvement. Because it might not even be our choice – it might be necessary.”

The Czech Republic has been a member of NATO for 25 years. For you how much is that something to celebrate?

“For me it is. I’m a proponent of NATO. Of course I tend to be critical of different individual episodes that NATO did, or what NATO decided. I’m definitely not happy about individual US actions in the past, such as the war in Iraq.

Photo: Romana Spitzerová,  Czech Army

“But overall I believe that we belong to trans-Atlantic security structures. I believe that collective defence is the best way to assure our security in today’s world.

“I believe that in this regard the Czech Republic, security-wise, is better off than basically any time in our history. I definitely very much believe that.

“Yes, generally it makes sense, and it makes sense for us to be active members who are actually shaping what NATO does – in order to secure our interests and also our values.”