One glance at the map and it is easy to see the bullseye of Europe is Prague, as if the castle nation sits amidst a sea of blue NATO chess pieces: a great place for Vladimir Putin to plant seeds of distrust amongst allies arrayed against his myriad advances. Recently a strategic visit took place between our nations but without the bombast of current Washington politics. The result was that U.S.-Czech bilateral relations showed a welcome return to normal this month when the Czech Defense Minister visited Washington.
Defense Minister Martin Stropnicky came to the United States to attend a conference in Norfolk hosted by NATO’s Allied Command Transformation. He also held bilateral talks with Defense Secretary Mattis, and set aside a day to visit Nebraska, as part of ongoing discussions of a NATO initiative that ties together European partners with state National Guard units. This was a diplomatic nod by the Minister to the long history of Czech immigration to Nebraska.
Stropnicky’s visit presented a stark contrast to the increasing tilt by some Czech political figures toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia that we have seen from Prague over the past couple of years. The most recent example is the months-long circus surrounding claims by the Czech head of state, President Milos Zeman, that President Trump had invited him for a state visit — claims that the White House steadfastly ignored, contra Zeman’s protests. However, this came from the man who stated “I’m not drunk, it’s just a virus” at a crown jewels ceremony and likely experiences unrequited love outside Moscow’s arms.
President Trump and his advisors recognized the implicit threat of Russian interference posed by Zeman, whose chief advisor Martin Nejedly was labeled “Putin’s paymaster” in a New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning series. However, the shadowy characters do not stop there when we remember the Ali Fayyad affair linking Russia and Hezbollah, with an assist from the Czech government. Fayyad was the terrorist linking Russia and Hezbollah arms and drug trading who avoided extradition to the U.S. via kidnapping in Lebanon.
Conversely, Secretary Mattis received Stropnicky in a manner befitting a NATO ally: in person at the ceremonial entrance of the Pentagon with all the trappings of a state visit, including an honor guard. It was clearly a sign that the recent White House snub of President Zeman and Nejedly was aimed at Putin, not the Czech Republic. It showed how allies treat one another: with respect, dignity, and on the bedrock of common interests. The message was America can respect and dignify a real Czech leader but will dismiss any stooge of the Kremlin.
While there are shadowy figures in Czech leadership, we must not allow shadows between the NATO alliance members. Putin has a multi-pronged strategy to weaken NATO from within and without. He is seeking to combine his forces and divide players, pieces, and positions in classic KGB chess. For his part, the Defense Minister kept diplomatic decorum and stressed the importance of NATO when he said he would “like to underline that for us, the membership in the [NATO] alliance is absolutely crucial … one of the main pillars of democratic development after 1989, and that we of course want to remain on that track.”
Stropnicky played the part and acted presidential, which is more than can be said for the anti-gravitas President Zeman. This may have been no accident, given that Stropnicky could challenge Zeman for the presidency in next year’s elections. He even addressed some of the difficult realities in the backbone of the relationship, namely, the dire need for Czechs to increase their defense spending and especially to modernize their forces. Modernizing, of course, includes converting to a NATO standard plus ensuring interoperability with other NATO forces.
Americans know that making a good show in Washington is not sufficient evidence of allied commitment, but it’s a start. Czechs have a special place in the heart of Washington policymakers — with a statue of former President Vaclav Havel in a place of honor in the U.S. Capitol building — and a figure like Zeman must not be allowed to erode the deep trust between the two allies. As things continue to evolve from Kompromat to perhaps Putin’s Karpov positional approach to NATO, we must encourage prioritization of NATO standards, systems, and firmness.
Finally, Stropnicky made a good impression here, and one can hope for a deepening positive relationship with him. It will require collective political and military work to mitigate the various forms of Putin’s soft aggression, which was effective against the previous administration’s much hyped soft power. As Trump departs on his first major foreign trip floating the idea of an Arab NATO, he would do well to remember the ties that bind global security come from having good, committed leaders both here and abroad.