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The View from Prague

Czech Deputy Defense Minister Jan Havránek recently spoke with Gary J. Schmitt and Craig Kennedy about threats to democracy, to EU defense, and to transatlantic security.

Jan Havránek, Gary J. Schmitt, Craig Kennedy

Gary J. Schmitt: You spent the last several years at NATO and now you’re back in Prague at the Ministry of Defence. Based on your Brussels experience, what general reflections do you have on NATO and Czech defense issues?

Minister Jan Havránek: I’ve seen major changes at NATO over the past seven years. I came to the Czech delegation at NATO in April 2014, approximately a month after the annexation of Crimea. And I was privileged enough to sit through all the defense policy planning committee meetings in preparation for all the key decisions at the most significant NATO summits, including Wales, Warsaw, and Brussels, from 2014 to 2017. It was fascinating to see how NATO, which had not really paid attention to collective defense since the end of the Cold War, was able to reorient relatively fast and to address the growing threat of Russia’s hybrid and military activities. But of course, the world had not stopped turning while we were doing that adaptation. We face new challenges in cyber, hybrid warfare, and more. For me, the NATO that I came to in 2014 was completely different from the NATO that I left in 2020.

On the national front, the situation had not changed that much. In fact, the systemic issues that we faced when I entered the Ministry of Defence ten years ago are exactly the same. The resource question has not vanished. We’re still looking at possible future deployments in out-of-area operations, with open questions of what’s going to happen once we leave Afghanistan. We’re still dealing with the future of Iraq. There have been new tasks, including in the Sahel region.

In the area of capabilities, we still have to tackle issues like efficiency in acquisition processes, the inclusion of national industries, and multinational cooperation. One big change is that all this is happening at a time of a significant technological development, with emerging and disruptive technologies shaping the future of the defense sector. Our task here is thus to not only deal with the traditional structural issues of the defense sector, but to adapt to the new technologies as well.

GS: Well, after the invasion of Ukraine, the Czech Republic has put more resources toward defense. But over the past year there has been a question about whether that uptick in resourcing will continue. What problems is the Ministry now facing on that front?

JH: The good news is that when you look at the tempo of the growth since 2014, we’ve ranked among the top ten allies in terms of cumulative defense spending. The issue is the absorption capacity of the system: the ability to plan the big projects and execute them on time.

In 2021 one of our key projects is the acquisition of infantry fighting vehicles. They are part

of our NATO capability target for 2026 and integral to the heavy mechanized brigade that we have promised to NATO. But due to the political volatility arising from the pandemic, we face additional delays. This year was supposed to be the first year where we would be spending a significant portion of that money on the project.

Looking at the consequences of Covid-19 and the rise of state budget debt in the Czech Republic, we may face some tough years ahead. However, the pressure toward more defense spending that we’ve seen over the past couple of years from the other side of the Atlantic is not going away. It may be applied with different gloves, softer gloves, but the commitment and the sense of responsibility are still there.

In the past, we were able to balance the requirement. On the one hand we argued that we’re not spending enough, but look at our contributions in Afghanistan and our engagements in the Balkans or the Greater Middle East. That argument doesn’t work anymore. You have to be able to do everything in all three clusters—cash, capabilities, and contributions. It is tough to get a break by showing other activities because of the complexity of the security environment. You can’t just blame it on the pandemic, because everybody’s dealing with it. You can’t blame it on complicated defense procurement policies, because everybody’s dealing with complicated defense procurements. The structural issues are still there, but getting the resources will be more difficult.

Craig Kennedy: How do you reassure the “other side of the Atlantic” that Europe is actually serious about its own security? In the Baltics, you see very good trends. Sweden and Finland actually have robust programs. I know they’re not in NATO, but they’re within the EU framework. But if you look at Germany, Italy, Spain, it is a sad performance. And it started way before Covid. If you were advising the secretary general of NATO right now, what should he say to convince the Americans that things are going to be okay?

JH: First of all, look at the more recent trend, which has overall been positive. That’s not the case with some countries due to national-level decisions but, overall, it is important to recognize that the Europeans as a whole have increased their spending over the past couple of years. And they have contributed to NATO deterrence and defense operations. At the same time, Europeans have been trying to get more organized as a part of EU defense cooperation initiatives. That is also positive. It may not always be as transparent or as comprehensive to non-EU allies. It is a challenge for EU members to be able to communicate our approach to those who are invested in European security but are not embedded in EU institutions.

I think we also need a genuine transatlantic strategic dialogue at NATO, backed by bilateral efforts. One of the future challenges for us Europeans is to make sure that we are aligned with our American friends when it comes to issues such as China. The understanding of the threat and challenges posed by Russia is easier than getting a shared approach to China. And this is something perhaps we have failed to understand throughout the Trump Administration, the importance of China in U.S. national security strategy and policy.

As a result, we have become more susceptible to what some may call the geopolitical competition over Europe. Europeans want to be an active global player through the EU. But at the same time, the European territory is subjected to malign interventions by Russia and China.

How do we orient ourselves in this complex environment? That takes us back to the old notion of the transatlantic bargain. Europeans and Americans have to find a convergence of interests based both on values and on practical and realistic steps. Together, we must find a way to face issues such as instability in Africa and the Middle East.

CK: Before we switch to some of these global issues: Americans see a very divided Europe when it comes to Russia. You certainly hear rhetoric from Germany that would confuse people. So, too, from Paris. If one were trying to make the case to Americans that in fact there really is a common outlook in Europe, what are the indicators that you would cite?

JH: The sanctions still represent the most solid common denominator. Engaging Russia is tough because Russia obviously does not have a unified approach to all European countries. It is different in Germany than in the Czech Republic. In fact, our communication channels are cold. There has not been an official meeting between the foreign ministers of the Czech Republic and Russia for more than a decade.1 When we talk to our other European allies, they’re very often surprised to hear about that lack of contact because they all see the engagement and dialogue with Russia from the perspective of their capitals. That causes division—which is not Europe-induced, of course—but it is the reality. Different countries have different experiences with Russia. We have to find a common language and common position through both the EU and NATO.

GS: I would just add that, besides the sanctions, NATO hasn’t done well at tooting its own horn about what it’s actually done in the Baltics, Poland, and Romania in beefing up deterrence. I’m surprised sometimes that NATO hasn’t made more of what it has done in that respect.

In its early months, the Biden Administration has talked a lot about reviving relations among allies, including of course transatlantic allies. But we’ve had two previous U.S. administrations that didn’t make transatlantic ties a priority. From the perspective of Prague, just how seriously should this outreach be taken?

JH: First, we have to recognize that, despite the harsh rhetoric of the previous administration, the United States has delivered when it comes to the defense of Europe. We saw increases in the U.S. military commitment to European defense over the four years of the Trump Administration.

From the Biden Administration, we’ve already seen coordinated efforts to communicate with allies on issues of strategic importance before they are published in the media and on Twitter. It’s early, but I can certainly testify to the administration’s effort and openness when it comes to communication and willingness to consult allies and to find a common approach and common position. That said, we’re still waiting to see the new U.S. administration’s position on the regions of strategic interest, including Iraq.

The real test for the transatlantic relationship lies in the area of adapting to new domains, in cyber and space, including emerging and disruptive technologies. How we tackle them will show the quality of the transatlantic relationship moving forward. I’m not as concerned about the traditional areas, such as land-based defense and collective defense in general.

CK: Jan, you were talking earlier about the Middle East and North Africa. What would you want from the United States in those areas? The Europeans were seemingly ignored as the last administration put together the Abraham Accords, a dramatic reworking of the dynamics of the Middle East. What would you want from the United States at this point, and what could you offer as part your side of the bargain?

JH: On the military side of the bargain, the Europeans have shown that they can contribute to the fight against terrorism and to stability and reconstruction operations in the region, as well as in East Africa.

GS: I know you’ve published or are getting ready to publish a report on hybrid warfare. Can you walk us through the new priority the Ministry is giving to this issue?

JH: Actually, this has been an ongoing effort for a couple of years. About five years ago, the Czech government commissioned an audit of the Czech national security system. It was the first time that a group of experts recognized that there was a need for significant improvements in the way we approach and handle security and defense and that there needs to be more coordination across the ministries and agencies. One of the tasks from that exercise was to come up with a National Strategy for Countering Hybrid Interference. We’ve now completed that exercise, and it provides a framework for coordination by the key ministries and Czech institutions in all things hybrid. First, we describe hybrid tactics quite specifically. They’re not attributed to one particular state, but from the description you can clearly recognize who the state and non-state actors are. After that, it describes the kinds of tools that the Czech government needs to be able to respond. Most of the tools and tasks for responding reside outside the Ministry.

We talk about the full spectrum of political tools. We talk about the need to be able to react rapidly to all sorts of hybrid behavior. We also discuss the need for attribution, calling out the perpetrators. We also discuss issues related to resilience and capacity building, educating the wider society, and training our professional bureaucrats and the people in public institutions to be able to recognize the patterns of malign behavior.

The document is a good example of a comprehensive approach to hybrid warfare, involving political and economic tools, wider resilience, critical infrastructure, and of course issues in the area of defense. I should also say that strategic communications are singled out as one of the areas where we, as a country, need to step up our efforts. This issue has come to the fore during the pandemic, where the government has not been able to communicate its strategy effectively to the general public.

CK: When you look at hybrid warfare and the sources of the threats, where do you look? Do you look to China? Do you look to Russia? Who do you see as the source of these threats?

JH: I would just underline that the tactics employed by Russia and China are different in each European country. In the case of the Czech Republic, when you look at Russia, you have to look at political corruption, aggressive intelligence operations, or the spread of disinformation done through funding of radical groups. Russia also tries to work closely with some political parties on the extreme parts of the spectrum. Russia’s approach to the Czech Republic is through influencing hearts and minds, public opinion, trying to undermine the trust in institutions. When it comes to China, it is more sophisticated, more cyber-oriented, and economic—looking at particular technologies and investing in critical sectors, and of course working with businesses in these areas.

CK: So let’s switch to China, not just as a hard security threat but for the way they’ve been applying their soft power to Central and Eastern Europe. There’s been a fair amount written in the U.S. press about how they have both wooed and threatened Prague over cooperation on certain issues, working with some of your politicians. What’s going on now? Are they still at it?

JH: The Czech security establishment has been very cautious about Chinese influence. Our intelligence agencies have always raised the alarm both privately and publicly. China has been using all its usual tools of influence here—the so-called economic diplomacy built on enormous investment promises, the indirect and more or less covert promotion of Chinese Communist Party interests through powerful business and political proxies and such. Today, if you read NATO 2030 policy documents, you see that the alliance finally sees China as a strategic challenge. But under the surface, in the spheres of technological espionage, cyber threats and others, the process of elite capture keeps going, particularly because the awareness among the decision-makers as well as academics and businessmen is still very low.

GS: In recent polls, it appears younger Americans and Europeans are not as invested in transatlantic ties as in the past and are less concerned about security more generally. How about youth in the Czech Republic?

JH: I share the same concerns, obviously, because these are generational issues. We recently did some quick polls asking specifically about NATO membership, and the polls actually showed some pretty interesting trends. On the one hand, younger Czechs don’t question our membership in NATO. They see the value of that organization in terms of providing peace, security, and protection against global conflict and war. But there is a serious lack of understanding of the significance of the organization and what it actually does. And when we look at the general trends in public opinion, we see issues such as climate change being more important than security, maybe except for terrorism.

My country is one of the safest countries in the world, with no significant conflicts on our borders or terrorist incidents at home. That is partly due to the fact that we’re surrounded by NATO allies and EU members. But it creates a false perception that we’re living in a secure world. At the Ministry of Defence we have committed ourselves to trying to engage Czech youth and to talk to them about the security challenges of today.

We need to explain the value of the transatlantic partnership. We need to find a new narrative for the U.S.-European alliance that will be appealing to younger audiences. And not only for NATO as an institution but really as a community, or for the West if you will, without the notion of the West having any negative connotations. So that is a challenge. And I have a strong sense of responsibility in that area, being in the leadership of one of the key government institutions. We’ve started planning a series of security and defense engagements with the youth. And I guess we will need to start those conversations even earlier than we previously thought. We can’t wait until they are university students; we have to really begin by targeting high school students.

GS: Has that impacted young Czechs joining the military?

JH: No. We’ve been able to sustain the recruitment because our armed forces are a stable and attractive employer. But then at the same time, the average age of those serving has risen. We have one of the highest average ages among servicemen and women in Europe.

CK: Do you worry about the same trend in the United States, a weakening interest in European security combined with a growing concern with China?

Jan: Yes. We’ll see if Europe can find a common approach with the United States other than through NATO. We all remember how damaging the acrimony was to the transatlantic partnership, resulting in the failure to conclude the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) agreement.

It may not be the right time for that kind of a “big bang” strategic approach outside of the security and defense area, but we’ll see. I’m not that worried about NATO as an institution per se, because NATO has shown that it has a remarkable capacity for adaptation, both on the political and the military levels. There is a proven record with NATO. Still, the relationship between Europe and the United States can’t be reduced just to one collective defense and crisis organization.

CK: I’m glad you raised T-TIP. Do you think European attitudes about that kind of trade arrangement have softened at all over the last four or five years, or have they hardened?

JH: Hard to say. I still vividly remember the protests from various regions all over Europe. I also think Brussels faces a credibility gap in the wake of the pandemic. The EU has shown some significant limitations when it comes to being able to respond to Covid-19, both last year and even now as we’re dealing with vaccinations.

GS: So, do you miss the United Kingdom yet?

JH: I do miss the United Kingdom’s voice of reason in some of the discussions concerning European defense cooperation. We’ve always benefited from the non-continental perspective of the United Kingdom when it came to European defense. I hope that we’ll be able to find a modus operandi relatively fast with them.

GS: And European “strategic autonomy”?

JH: At this stage, it’s not a significant security and defense issue. We are past that debate. On the European level, defense cooperation still has major limitations when it comes to resources and the complexity of the institutional mechanisms. I wouldn’t be that worried about issues such as PESCO [Permanent Structured Cooperation] or the European Defence Fund being at the expense of NATO, because if done well, these can only contribute to the right mix of capabilities.

The issue of strategic autonomy, interestingly enough, is now being projected into other non-security and non-defense areas. That includes the economy, but also the whole digital space and even agriculture. What I’m seeing these days is a de-securitization of that subject.

And you are very well aware of the different approaches to that issue when it comes to security and defense by Germany and France. But even our French colleagues have come to understand that their vision of strategic autonomy wasn’t the best way to approach the discussion of Europe’s “level of ambition” in defense.

What we’re now doing is focusing more on the strategic compass, which should define more of the EU’s level of ambition when it comes to crisis management operations and what it wants to achieve as an entity. But we need to make sure that this will not be in conflict with NATO’s efforts. Sooner or later, we’ll come to a mutual understanding about what each organization does and how to coordinate those efforts. After all, there are twenty-one nations that are members of both organizations.

A more immediate challenge is that the EU will be preparing its strategic concept—which will provide political guidance, the level of ambition, for Common Security and Defense Policy operations—at more or less the same time that NATO will be preparing its strategic concept. The two processes culminate in 2022. The challenge is to not end up with an institutional fight over competencies. This cannot be a bureaucratic exercise by either of the organizations.

For the Czech government, we want to make sure that neither NATO nor the EU is competing against the national interests of my country when it comes to security and defense. We have to make sure that we employ the tools available through these organizations but also that we remember that for Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, NATO is the priority.

CK: Do you think that the relationship between the United States and Europe has fundamentally changed over the last twenty years, and not for the better? There were two recent events that seemed telling in that regard. The first took place just before Christmas, when the incoming Biden Administration essentially asked the European Union not to sign the investment agreement with China until there could be consultation. But, with a push from Berlin, the EU decided to move forward in any case. And then, several weeks ago, the United States unilaterally lifted a lot of the tariffs on wine and cheeses and so forth, and was met with an EU promise to regulate Google and Amazon and other tech companies. In both cases, the incoming administration thought they were holding a hand out, and it was not met in kind. I would suggest that the problem is that, for twenty years, there’s been an erosion of trust and common purpose that might not be repairable. I’d be interested in your views.

JH: We are certainly far from speaking a common political language. I think we have a pretty solid understanding when it comes to general security and defense, but the wider political trust is not there yet. You’ve noted these two specific cases, but of course there are examples that Europeans will cite that point the finger in the other direction.

One could argue that this has been really dragging on since the 2003 fallout over Iraq, which had its roots in a security issue, but has spilled over into the economic sphere. The challenge that I’m seeing here again is that our security and defense bubble is very often politically disconnected from the other areas. We need to find a way to speak a common language. One initial step might be some sort of solidarity pledge at the upcoming NATO summit. But, more broadly, to be able to understand one another we need the ability to talk about non-security and defense issues as well.

For example, even in the Washington Treaty that established NATO, Article 2 commits the member states to strengthening their free institutions, promoting their principles, and striving to eliminate economic conflicts among allies. We will need to find a new sort of transatlantic understanding without trying to create an economic or more political and non-defense NATO.

I don’t want to use the word “bargain” because that implies a more transactional approach to handling things. Our politicians will have to take the lead and understand what is required to rebuild transatlantic trust. And we, the transatlantic family, need to talk to one another more consistently. We also need to reach out to the youth and be able to have young Europeans engaging with young Americans. This may sound like a cliché, but I have personally learned the importance of such exchanges and contacts. However, I also know that the benefits of such exchanges are difficult to sustain if the effort is not maintained. If you don’t invest in young leaders in a sustainable way, you may end up where we are in 2021 with a decline in trust and an increasing isolation.

GS: Thank you. You’ve been very generous with your time and incredibly forthright.

Jan Havránek is deputy minister of defense of the Czech Republic, responsible for defense policy and strategy. Prior to his appointment, he was policy adviser at the Policy Planning Unit of the office of the NATO secretary general.

Gary J. Schmitt, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a resident scholar in strategic studies and American institutions at the American Enterprise Institute.

Craig Kennedy is a senior fellow, member of the editorial board, and trustee at American Purpose. From 1995 to 2014 he was president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

1The interview took place before the Czech government revealed that Russian GRU agents were involved in a 2014 munition-storage facility explosion in the Czech Republic, which killed two Czech citizens. This led to a diplomatic row between Prague and Moscow and resulted in an expulsion of the majority of Russian diplomats from the Czech Republic. Other European countries took similar steps in solidarity. The two agents responsible for the attack are also connected to the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury in 2018.

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