Pull troops back, NATO chief tells Russians on Prague visit

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, photo: CTK

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been in Prague on Thursday for talks with the Czech prime minister and other senior officials. Naturally Russian aggression towards Ukraine has been on the agenda, but the alliance’s secretary general has also been trying to persuade Prague to boost its military spending.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen,  photo: CTK
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke to reporters in Prague on Thursday in a break between meetings with the Czech prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, and other senior officials.

Much of what he said touched on the crisis following Russia’s recent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and its current deployment of 40,000 troops near the Ukrainian border.

Mr. Rasmussen said it was the first time since countries like the Czech Republic had won their freedom and the Cold War ended that one European state had tried to grab part of another’s territory at gunpoint.

“From Prague I have this message for Russia. You have a choice. To stop blaming others for your own actions. To stop massing your troops. To stop escalating this crisis and start engaging in a genuine dialogue. If Russia is serious about a dialogue, the first step should be to pull back its troops.”

Donetsk,  Ukraine,  photo: CTK
On the eve of the NATO chief’s arrival in Prague, the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, said he would back a military intervention by the alliance in Ukraine if Russia took further territory.

Mr. Rasmussen poured cold water on this idea. He spoke of the isolation and sanctions Russia could face – but insisted NATO would only go to war if a member was attacked.

Meanwhile, on Thursday morning a local newspaper quoted a highly critical NATO report which stated the Czech army would be incapable of playing a useful role in alliance missions unless the country markedly increased the amounts it spends on defence.

Czech military spending has fallen by about a quarter in recent years to just over 1 percent of GDP – a long way below the NATO target of 2 percent.

Mr. Rasmussen said he had encouraged his hosts to boost military spending. However, he stopped short of publicly criticising Prague and kept his language vague.

Photo: archive of Czech Army
“It is a national responsibility to take the necessary decisions to make sure the armed forces live up to the overall requirements within our alliance. I have no doubt that the Czech authorities will do all they can within the budgetary limits to continue modernisation of the Czech armed forces. But of course it would help if more resources could be devoted to defence.”

For his part, the Czech prime minister said he had not got the impression from the NATO chief that Czechs were passive “fare dodgers” not carrying their financial weight within the alliance. Maintaining a proportionate military budget was among the government’s priorities, Mr. Sobotka told journalists.