The Czech government is unlikely to further escalate the diplomatic crisis with Russia. Rather, it will look for ways out of this crisis.
While most of the world has been following the development of COVID-19 pandemic, Czechia has been hit by another big news involving pressure on democratically elected politicians, spies and Russia.
To the surprise of most Czechs, on 26 April 2020, a recognised liberal weekly Respekt brought a story describing an earlier arrival of the Russian spy to Czechia who was based on their information likely leaked from the security services carrying a diplomatic passport and, in his suitcase, also a deadly poison named Ricin.
The Russian national was found to be a serious threat to three Prague politicians, the Mayor of City of Prague Zdeněk Hřib and the heads of two Prague districts Ondřej Kolář (sixth district) and Pavel Novotný (thirteenth district) who were placed under the police protection.
And even if this seems to be the biggest diplomatic crisis since establishing Czech-Russian relations in 1993, things are unlikely to escalate the way we have seen in the United Kingdom in 2018 after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
While there are still missing pieces of the puzzle and other elements, such as the presence of the poison, are contested, it is clear that this situation is completely unprecedented.
Over the last couple of months, we have seen several initiatives led by local politicians in Prague, namely the transfer of a statue of the Soviet Army Marshal Ivan Konev to the museum of the 20th century, renaming the square in front of the Russian Embassy after the assassinated Russian opposition representative Boris Nemtsov, or most recently establishing a new monument to the Russian Liberation Army (so-called Vlasov Army) soldiers that helped to liberate Prague in May 1945, to which Moscow is overreacting.
Since the beginning of last month, a whole series of events followed, including thug attacks against the Czech representatives to Moscow and St. Petersburg, cyber-attacks against Czech ministries, hospitals or the Václav Havel Airport as well as a disinformation campaign and different forms of diplomatic and legal pressure.
Not only the motive of a historical monument but also the consequent actions resemble the case of Bronze Soldier in Estonia, which the local authorities decided to remove in 2007.
However, I argue that despite the desire of many in Czechia, this severe bilateral crisis is neither going to result in mass-expulsion of Russian diplomats nor wider coordinated efforts in the EU or NATO, as we have witnessed in the case of chemical weapons used on British soil in 2018.
Back then, an international solidarity action led to over a hundred Russian diplomats being sent home from more than twenty British NATO ally countries. At that time, Czechia contributed with three members of the overstaffed Russian mission, the biggest foreign representation in Prague – suspected to host dozens of Russian spies.
To understand why this is important, one should look for the answer in the domestic context of the whole debate and the reactions of individual decision-makers.
Failure of strategic communication
Already in September last year, when debates about removing the statue in the sixth district in Prague first escalated, it was clear that they were not of interest to Czech government officials.
Prime Minister Andrej Babiš largely refused to participate and delegated the issue to his foreign minister Tomáš Petříček, who limited himself to responding to the most aggressive rhetoric from the Russian side against local politicians.
The gap created by a failure of strategic communication was skilfully used by the Russian media and politicians as well as pro-Russian President Miloš Zeman and local proxies in Czechia who managed to create an artificial picture of division and polarisation of the Czech society on this issue, which only benefitted the Russian narrative.
Now, several months later, the same story repeats, although the stakes are higher this time. Threats to the life of several democratically elected politicians in Prague, or their legal prosecution in Russia, and foreign operatives on the Czech soil are at the heart of the debate.
Again, we can see problems with strategic communication to the domestic and external public, the indifference of key decision-makers and fragmented reaction from the highest level of Czech politics. One more time, it is the Russian Federation that is to benefit from this.
The question is why the Czechs cannot learn from past mistakes and if they can do better? And the answer is yes, it is possible.
The crucial element that has been missing this time is called political will and, indeed, the art of strategic communication that goes hand in hand with it. As the above-mentioned Skipals case illustrates, the Czech government could successfully cope with a disinformation operation of the Russian state and at the same time malign rhetoric of the Czech President who sided with the Russian narrative too.
But first, it must want to do so.
The difference between 2018 and today is the composition of the government and the foreign ministry that is now run by a smaller social-democratic partner and headed by Tomáš Petříček, who has a tense relationship with the prime minister.
The increasing pressure on the government to act is mostly directed to the foreign minister who, however, finds himself isolated both in the government and to some degree also his party, which has historically had a rather strong pro-Russian wing.
Being put in between a Russia-friendly president, an openly pro-Russian communist party backing the minority government, and a prime minister who is unwilling to allow for stronger action, also due to a potential conflict with the president, the foreign ministry is trapped in an expectation gap.
The gap is even more exposed when comparing the oversized Russian embassy in Prague to a much smaller Czech representation in Moscow, which further limits the space for action from the Czech side.
Unlikely to escalate
Therefore, while there has been a whole number of reasonable proposals and solid policy recommendations on how to act on the multilateral and bilateral level, including the rejection of Russian participation in the nuclear power station tender, which is a hot topic regarding the future energy mix, the Czech government is unlikely to further escalate the issue. Rather, it will look for ways out of this crisis.
After taking a strongly arrogant position, Russian diplomacy has expressed some willingness to find a compromise, which would – however – only come after the cancelled Second World War victory parade, planned for 9 May 2020, with the aim to put domestic problems at home, including tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, under the carpet.
This could, for example, result in a return of the statue of Marshal Konev back to Russia – based on de-escalation and cooperation between the defence ministries of both parties. The foreign minister has admitted that this is one of the options on the table.
However, this might just be the new normal in bilateral relations, as we can see in Poland or the Baltic states that have rich experience with Russian pressure over the historical memory.
To sum up, the Czech diplomacy is despite pressure from the Czech Parliament and civil society highly likely to follow neither the British example of a mass-scale multilateral response to the Skripals’ poisoning, nor the discrete but firm German reaction to the assassination of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili on the bilateral level in 2019, when dealing with the current crisis in relations with Russia.
Instead, what we can expect is an increased activity of the Czech secret services that have been describing the spy activity of Russia and China in the past as well as some kind of a face-saving exercise for the Czech public combined with diplomatic forms of protest – without much publicity and consequences for Russia.
The least we can hope for is that the lessons learned for political leadership, regarding the capacity and coordination of strategic communication, including on issues of historical memory, lead to an improved preparation for the next crisis.