PM draws fire for saying Czech Republic will not call for NATO troop increase

Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: Filip Jandourek

The head of the smallest party in government, the Christian Democrats, has criticised Social Democrat Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka for saying the Czech Republic would not be calling for more NATO troops in Europe. The premier made the comment following US President Barack Obama’s pledge in Warsaw to put an extra one billion US dollars into defence in Eastern Europe.

Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: Filip Jandourek
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka stirred the pot over steps which should be taken in response to Russian expansionism and the Ukraine crisis. Unlike Poland and the Baltic states especially, who are calling for more personnel on the ground in response to developments in Ukraine, the Czech premier gave the impression support by the Czech Republic for such measures was not needed. Here’s what he had to say:

“Some countries are addressing NATO and asking for a greater military presence – I know that is the case with Poland and with some of the Baltic states. We have assessed the security situation at present and we don’t need anything similar. The Czech Republic will not be and isn’t one of the countries calling for an increase in NATO troops in Europe.”

Pavel Bělobrádek,  photo: archive of Czech Government
It didn’t take long for his words to draw sharp response, most stinging from the ruling coalition’s Christian Democrats. Although he later backtracked, party leader Pavel Bělobrádek initially called the prime comments irresponsible and wholly unacceptable.

“This is something that was not consulted and not discussed at the government level and goes directly against the Czech Republic’s long-term strategy on defence.”

The Civic Democrats’, traditionally hawkish when it comes to European security, meanwhile, made clear they would welcome a greater US presence as a deterrent to Russia. Even their ideological rival, President Miloš Zeman, suggested in this case the increase of US NATO troops was not a bad idea.

“It is a gesture which means that if Russia were to occupy, for example, eastern Ukraine, such an occupation would not be accepted without a response.”

Barack Obama,  Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
On Wednesday, President Zeman, in Warsaw to mark 25 years since free elections in Poland preceded the start of the end of communism in Europe, went so far as to call the prime minister’s words a mistake, suggesting Mr Sobotka was short on foreign affairs experience and still had a lot to learn. By contrast, Defence Minister Martin Stropnický had backed up the prime minister earlier, saying his words needed to be seen in context: that it was only natural for Poland and the Baltic states, who share a border with Russia, to see the need for more troops on the ground as acute.