As Europe's Peace Unravels, Czech Republic Ties Its Defence More Tightly to NATO


Mar 11, 2024

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (L) meets with Czech Republic President Petr Pavel at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, April 19, 2023, photo courtesy of NATO

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (L) meets with Czech Republic President Petr Pavel at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, April 19, 2023

Photo courtesy of NATO

By Zdenek Rod, Ondrej Palicka, James Black

Amidst fighting in Ukraine, Israel-Gaza, and the Red Sea, and faced with renewed uncertainty over the U.S. commitment to NATO, European governments are waking up to the need to rebuild their countries' defences after three decades of peace dividend. Leaders in the Czech Republic have recognised the scale and urgency of this challenge, recently unveiling new strategy, funding, and modernisation commitments which reassure its allies of the country's dedication to NATO, ahead of the upcoming Washington Summit to mark the alliance's 75th anniversary.

The Czech Republic's increasingly robust stance on defence has hit the headlines in recent weeks with its president's initiative to raise and pool funds from partner nations to purchase non-EU stocks of artillery munitions to send to Ukraine. This builds on the country's new Defence Strategy (PDF), published in October 2023, which signalled a marked shift in policy—yet another by-product of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The new strategy is characterised by unprecedented bluntness and directness, explicitly identifying Russia as the primary security threat. To address this threat, Prague committed to spending two percent of GDP on defence for the first time since joining the alliance. The country hopes to further prove its renewed determination to bolster collective defence in Europe via modernising its armed forces, including by purchasing F-35 stealth fighters from the United States. The Czech Republic also aims to deepen bilateral defence cooperation, particularly with the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland, Germany, and Slovakia.

One major shift from the previous iteration of the strategy is the explicit identification of Russia and China as security challenges, aligning the country's position with that of NATO. The pivotal message is that Russia represents “the most serious threat to the security of the Czech Republic and its allies.” In contrast, the 2017 defence strategy merely alluded to Russia's ambitions, employment of hybrid tactics and flouting of international law. Similarly, while the 2017 version made no mention of China, the new strategy identifies it as a security concern, highlighting Beijing's hybrid threats to Europe's security. This is in line with NATO's perception of the twin, if differing, threats stemming from Russia and China.

The Czech republic's new defence strategy is characterised by unprecedented bluntness and directness, explicitly identifying Russia as the primary security threat.

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To address the deteriorating security environment, particularly Russia's aggression, the new strategy emphasises preparing the Czech Republic for the future possibility of a long-lasting, high-intensity defensive war with Russia. Envisaged preparations include building more combat-ready, sustainable forces to be deployed in collective defence missions and preparing the country to provide host nation support to allied forces. This is a departure from the past three decades, which were characterised by prioritisation of counterinsurgency, stabilisation efforts, and post-conflict reconstruction. At the same time, these actions will contribute to NATO's efforts to bolster both its collective defence and deterrence, as agreed at the Madrid and Vilnius summits in 2022 and 2023.

Another significant development is the adoption of a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to defence. The new approach calls for all public authorities, citizens, the private and nonprofit sectors, and the educational system to cooperate in building the country's societal resilience. This means that the Czech Republic will want to strengthen society's recognition of defence as a fundamental purpose of the state; and to develop its citizens' knowledge and skills to defend against both military and non-military threats. Such a transformation won't happen overnight, but the strategy brings the Czech approach closer to the 'total defence' and 'comprehensive security' models used by those NATO allies on the front line with Russia, like Finland and the Baltic States. If successful, this effort should increase the country's resilience and civilian preparedness in line with Article 3 of the Alliance.

The strategy further underscores the country's commitment to collective defence by prioritising defence and deterrence capability. As alluded to above, the Czech Republic's defence expenditures will reach two percent of GDP in 2024, with a commitment to maintain them at this level or above in the future. To develop its capabilities, the Czech Republic has adopted the Czech Armed Forces Development Concept 2035 (PDF). This concept covers a wide range of objectives like strengthening international cooperation and interoperability, adopting emerging and disruptive technologies, and investing in defence people and skills. The document outlines the armed forces' modernisation and acquisition plans, most notably the purchase of 24 F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft.

The Czech Republic's new defence strategy emphasises its commitment to its allies and Ukraine.

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The acquisition of the F-35 fighter jets will strengthen the Czech Republic's strategic and industrial partnerships with the United States, as well as its capability to contribute to NATO's collective defence and defend its own airspace. As the F-35 is being procured by many other European allies, the Czech Republic will feed into a network of more than 600 aircraft deployed in Europe, enhancing the country's ability to carry out joint operations.

The Czech Republic's new defence strategy emphasises its commitment to its allies, and Ukraine, at a time when the cohesion of the Western Alliance is being challenged by both domestic and external factors. Internally, many countries in Europe face rising support for populist and far-right parties, which often employ anti-NATO and anti-EU rhetoric. This has especially affected the Czech Republic's immediate neighbourhood in Central Europe. For example, the new Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who promised to end military aid for Ukraine, has partnered with the pro-Russian Slovak National Party. Hungary, meanwhile, has stalled EU efforts to provide aid for Ukraine and joined with Turkey in delaying the approval of Sweden's accession to NATO. In February, China offered to deepen security cooperation with Hungary amid warming bilateral relations. In light of such developments, the continuing demonstration of the Czech Republic's commitment to NATO and the European Union, and its willingness to lead on issues such as munitions for Ukraine, is a welcome reassurance for its allies.

Zdenek Rod is a research and teaching fellow at the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen and CEO and co-founder of the Center for Security Consulting in Prague. Ondrej Palicka is a research assistant and James Black is assistant director of the defence and security research group at RAND Europe.

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