Russian general warns Czech consent to negotiations on US radar base "a mistake"

General Yuri Baluyevsky with deputy defend minister Martin Bartak, photo: CTK

On Tuesday officials from the Czech foreign and defence ministries met for talks with Russian representatives in Moscow, including the Chief of the General Staff, General Yuri Baluyevsky. The issue? A possible US radar base stationed on Czech territory. For months Russia has expressed opposition to the idea of US missile defense in Europe and increasingly stepped up political action and rhetoric. On Tuesday General Baluyevsky continued in that vein by stating that Czech consent to negotiations with the US was "a mistake".

General Yuri Baluyevsky with deputy defend minister Martin Bartak,  photo: CTK
Talks between the Czech Republic and Russia on Tuesday - curiously on the anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia 39 years ago - were reportedly amiable but even so it is clear that in past weeks and months little has changed. Four months after a meeting between Czech President Vaclav Klaus and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Russia remains strongly opposed to the idea of US missile defense, namely radar and missile bases planned for the Czech Republic and Poland. The US has asked the countries to host the complementary bases, to secure itself against possible attacks from so-called "rogue states" - namely Iran or North Korea. But Russia remains unconvinced, viewing US steps with an increasingly distrustful eye. A little earlier I spoke to political analyst Oldrich Bures, of Palacky University in Olomouc, and asked him how he saw Russia's position on missile defense:

"I think it is becoming an increasingly important issue in Russian foreign policy but I think that it is an issue that has been 'taken advantage of'. In my opinion one of the possible explanations for the recent course of Russia's foreign policy - which has become increasingly assertive - is that is partly a reaction to US foreign policy but also a reaction to President Bush. At the same time I think it is also partly an internal game, where you have a stronger, economically resurgent Russia, which can afford to pursue a more assertive policy than, for example, under Boris Yeltsin."

"For the Czech Republic, I don't think that we should really listen to Russian generals telling us how we should secure our national security or whether we should have a radar base or not. I think that's a decision that needs to be carefully weighted. In any case it is an internal matter of the Czech Republic, or, we can say, a bilateral issue between the Czech Republic and the United States."

Even such tactics of defiance as Russia's dispatching of bombers near Guam or more recently outside UK airspace - reminiscent of the cold war and an apparent sign of the "new" Russia, says Bures are "more bark than bite".

"This is clearly a political signal but my interpretation is that it is more an internal signal rather than an external message. As far as my information is concerned, Russia actually doesn't have that many strategic bombers and if they send over to the UK or the Guam military base, I think they may have two leftover that are functional for all of Russia. So I think it's a 'nice' gesture but that's all it is - a gesture."

I also asked Oldrich Bures whether he thought the radar issue - especially if the radar were approved - could damage Czech-Russian relations.

Vladimir Putin,  photo: CTK
"It really depends on what will happen after Putin. Right now Putin is trying to make sure whoever is in the Kremlin after him will have to follow the same course on a number of foreign policy issues. But I think that the 'key' feature of Russian politics - both internal and external - is 'unpredictability'. So it's hard to say what will happen after Putin. If something that Putin wants to achieve will go through then yes, it will be problematic. But I'm not 100 percent sure that this cat & mouse game will continue after Putin is gone."

So far the US radar proposal for the Czech Republic - despite Russian opposition to the idea - has gotten tentative approval from the Czech government, but even there negotiations are nowhere near wrapping-up, something stressed by Czech representatives on Tuesday. Those are still underway until the end of the year and it remains to be seen whether Russia will continue to ratchet up the pressure. As for the Czech public: ordinary Czechs themselves have seemed far less enthusiastic about the radar base than the government: most surveys till now have suggested that two-thirds remain opposed to the base being stationed in their country.