I sometimes write about security issues for a Swiss publication called ISN Insights, and today my story is up about the Czechs supposedly backing out of the anti-ballistic missile defense system (ABMS) last month. As you will see, I’m arguing that much of the press, even prominent outlets such as The New York Times and AP, framed the story inaccurately:

…both American and Czechs officials have tried to stress that the media got the story wrong – and with some justification. The Czech decision to not host part of an early warning system (SEWS) has nothing to do with the Czechs’ overall enthusiasm for missile defense, they say, nor their willingness to take on a greater role in the future. Officials appear to have been particularly irked by stories that, they say, misinterpreted the 15 June announcement after Czech Defense Minister Alexander Vondra met in Prague with US Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn.

During a press conference, both men explained that the Czechs had chosen not to install several SEWS computer terminals on Czech army premises because the original plans, reported first in the Czech media back in April 2010, had been overtaken by events, especially NATO’s decision at the Lisbon summit last year to take the missile defense system under its wing.

I won’t repeat any more of the article because you can just go and read the whole thing if you are interested. Essentially, all the security analysts that I spoke to agreed that the NY Times (“Czechs, Disliking Role, Pull Out of U.S. Missile Defense Project”), AP ( “Czechs out of U.S. Missile Shield Plan”), and others had mixed up the various plans and simply ran with the sensational, but misleading story that the Czechs would have nothing to do now with missile defense … But what I wanted to mention here on the blog are some additional observations that I received from Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defense at the Center for European Reform – insightful comments that didn’t make their way into the article:

The end result of all this is that the Czechs have become somewhat more ‘Polish’ in their dealing with the US. The Czechs were always ‘true believers’: they thought missile defense important as such; that’s why they wanted to be a part of it. To the Poles, this was always more about securing US boots on Polish ground; at different points [Polish Foreign Minister Radek] Sikorski actually questioned whether Iran or anyone else can threaten Europe or the US with missiles. Now the Czech feel somewhat hurt. And you can tell in Sasa Vondra’s remarks – in implying that he’s talking to the Americans about another – any, really – US facility in his country – that he has also come to prioritize US military presence, rather than missile defense. This is not a rejection of the ABMS but a reprioritization of what the Czechs want.

That’s an interesting way of summing things up and I think Tomas is on to something. During the many months when top Czech officials were promoting missile defense in the face of fierce domestic opposition, their motivations did often seem idealistic rather than a merely pragmatic – a wily maneuver to get a radar station (and U.S. soldiers) on Czech ground to better secure the country’s defense. I wonder, however, whether part of the reason that people such as Vondra and former Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek chose not to emphasize too much the expected presence of foreign soldiers – even if that would bring heightened security – was because of the legacy of the Warsaw Pact invasion and all those Russian troops stationed here during the Cold War. Is that something that Czechs have a larger phobia about than Poles? I’m not sure…

The photo is dated (1984), but relevant: Air Force technicians work at tracking monitors in the Tactical Operations Room on the BALLISTIC MISSILE EARLY WARNING system site.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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