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Tomáš Valášek, a former Slovak ambassador to NATO, is a member of the Slovak parliament.
Do small Central European countries matter less than big Western ones?
That’s one take on why the Kremlin’s poisoning of a Russian dissident in the United Kingdom in 2018 elicited a much stronger collective response than a recent report that Moscow was behind a 2014 explosion at a munitions depot in the Czech Republic that killed two people.
At the time of this writing, only five EU countries expelled Russian personnel from their embassies when Prague asked, compared to 18 (of 28 at the time), who did so at London’s bidding. This looks bad and seems to confirm the Russian hypothesis that smaller countries in Central Europe are second-class citizens who could, under the right circumstances, be separated from the rest of the EU.
The truth is more complicated. Rather than a symptom of inequality within the EU, the Czech case appears to be a tale of unfortunate timing and missed diplomatic opportunities.
When you ask matters as much as what and how. The Czechs publicized their finding when most European capitals had another Russia crisis on their minds. With tens of thousands of Russian troops seemingly poised to enter Ukraine, the focus across Europe was on talking Russia out of doing something foolish. This is not a criticism of the timing of the Czech ask — more on the subject below —but an observation: Their request to expel Russian personnel went against the perceived need elsewhere in Europe for intense diplomacy with Moscow.
To make things worse, some European capitals had just ejected Russian spies from their capitals. This was in response to the “SolarWinds” hack of U.S. government servers. Washington took the lead by imposing sanctions and expelling 10 people from the embassy in Washington; Poland followed by expelling three from Warsaw.
Poland would normally be among the first countries to respond positively to the Czech request, but there is a limit on the number of personnel one can and wants to expel. The unwritten rule is that one does not expel diplomats but spies acting under a diplomatic cover, and there are a finite number of those. Russia broke this rule by expelling actual diplomats from the Czech embassy in Moscow, but Europe should not follow the Russian example; two wrongs do not make a right.
In diplomacy, one is not always in control of the timing. With skill and persuasion, Prague could have neutralized the disadvantages and, in theory, elicited a stronger European response. That it did not do so comes down to the turmoil in Czech diplomacy at the time.
Prague is six months away from a general election. The Social Democrats who control the foreign ministry are down in the polls and on the cusp of ejection from the parliament. A failed intra-party coup in April led to the dismissal of the then-foreign minister, Tomáš Petříček, only five days before the Czechs charged Moscow with responsibility for the explosion.
Just when the country needed its diplomats the most, the foreign ministry was temporarily led by the interior minister, Jan Hamáček, who is also the head of the Social Democratic party. He’s not without foreign experience (he led the foreign affairs committee of the lower house of the Czech parliament at one point in his career), but Hamáček clearly had other things on his mind.
The foreign ministry was also unprepared because the announcement of Russian involvement appears to have been rushed. It came, very unusually in politics — on a Saturday evening, even though the government had been in possession of the intelligence for some time. There are different theories as to why this happened — one holds that it was to forestall a leak, another that the Czechs were “bounced” into the announcement by another country’s intelligence service’s threat to release the information unless they did so first. Whatever the cause, it came so precipitously that Czech diplomats were caught off guard.
Normally, the foreign service would have worked out in advance what sort of support it would seek from its allies and partners, and who would ask, where and how. As it happened, the EU foreign affairs council was meeting the following Monday, and the Czechs naturally had to formally raise the issue, having made an explosive public announcement 36 hours earlier.
But the Czech government officials that I spoke to say that it was not until Tuesday that the country’s diplomats were asked by their capital to suggest what sort of expression of solidarity they can and should ask for from fellow EU and NATO member states. By then, their somewhat confused allies heard the charges but did not hear a clear request of what type of support was desired. An opportunity to capitalize on the emotion of the first moments was lost. Had the Czechs made a common stance with Bulgaria, which raised similar charges a few days later, perhaps the response elsewhere would have been more robust, but little coordination appears to have taken place between the two.
These small details matter greatly in diplomacy. EU countries vary in their outlook on Russia; they do not instinctively all gravitate toward sanctions and expulsions. It takes skills, good timing and a strong cause to craft a common response — just ask those involved in designing and negotiating the coordinated EU-U.S. sanctions on Russia over the annexation of Crimea.
Take one or two of these ingredients away and you get what the Czechs got: some expressions of solidarity, but probably far removed from their expectations, and an inadvertent confirmation of their suspicions that perhaps smaller countries in their part of the world matter less than those further West. Perhaps — but, as the saying holds, it’s never wise to blame on conspiracy what one can blame on incompetence.