Russia Views Visegrad as a Weak Link in the European Union

“Recent events in the Czech Republic clearly show that the times when one could be a member of NATO and the European Union and at the same time allow Russians to build nuclear power plants in the Czech Republic are coming to an end.” Maksim Samorukov states in an interview with Zbigniew Rokita.

ZBIGNIEW ROKITA: The Russian government announced in May a list of “unfriendly countries”. Contrary to expectations, there are not the usual suspects like Poland, Lithuania or Georgia among the enemies of Russia. There are just two countries: the United States and the Czech Republic. Just a few weeks earlier, no one would have thought that the latter could end up on such a list.

MAXIM SAMORUKOV: This is not a list of Russia’s greatest enemies; it was created as an instrument of pressure on countries which might want to remove Russian diplomats in the future. The Czechs are on it because they already expelled the Russians, and other countries now have a hard nut to crack.

Being included on the list entails specific consequences, including restriction of the possibility to employ Russian citizens in institutions operating on Russian territory—in practice, these are drivers, security guards, etc. This is a very severe sanction.

The Czech government’s decision to expel the Russians, which occurred after the details of the attack on the weapons depot in Vrbětice were revealed, became the straw that broke the camel’s back. Moscow is annoyed that so many countries are removing Russian diplomats, so it wanted to increase the price of such a step. Expulsions of Russians have recently become an everyday occurrence. Recently, even Macedonia expelled the staff of the Russian embassy in Skopje, but asked not to expel Macedonian diplomats as retaliation, because only two of them work in Moscow and the embassy would be empty.

There were about 140 diplomats working at the Russian embassy in Prague. This is several times more than in the embassy in Berlin. Prague was spoken of as the modern equivalent of Cold War Vienna, since much of the staff probably had a second job—in the security services.

Of course, every Russian outpost is staffed by both real diplomats and – as they say in Russian – neighbors.

Neighbors?

People from the security services. But I am convinced that a significant number of them are not fulfilling important tasks.

So why are they staying there?

Because they can. Prague has long had a sizable Russian and earlier Soviet embassy, and it has stayed that way. Why would they reduce their staff there? I suspect that bureaucracy and jobs for the boys prevail. Prague is a nice place to live, and Russians have a huge staff.

Besides, the scandal with the poisoning of Prague’s mayor shows that not all of them are professionals, and instead of defending Russia’s interests they prefer to look after their own. Did you hear about this scandal?

Tell us.

Last year, the authorities of one of Prague’s districts dismantled a monument to the Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev. Then it was reported in the Czech media that a Russian diplomat-cum-spy went to Prague to poison the mayor of the district, who had made the decision to dismantle it. The mayor was provided with protection, but it soon turned out that no one wanted to murder him — the story was supposedly invented by another Russian diplomat who wanted to smear a fellow diplomat and take his job. There have been a lot of scandals at the Russian embassy in Prague which does not put the staff there in a good light.

Another thing is that the presence of so many Russian diplomats in Warsaw, for example, would arouse great controversy. The attitude of Czechs towards Russians is different, however, and there are quite a lot of them living in Prague anyway.

Yes, very few Russians live in Warsaw, but a Russian can function nicely in Prague not knowing Czech, while remaining in touch only with his countrymen. There is a large intellectual diaspora which left the country in recent years. There is the editorial office of Radio Svoboda, there are a lot of Russian students, properties bought by Russians, etc. The atmosphere there is better than in Warsaw for accommodating so many diplomats. And this is not a recent phenomenon, but has been the case at least since the beginning of the twentieth century. Miloš Zeman won the last presidential election despite his openly pro-Russian views, his presence in Red Square alongside Putin at the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian war, etc.

Central Europe is high on the list of priorities for the Russian security services?

I don’t think that the high number of agents in the Prague embassy correlates with the importance of the region for the Kremlin.

The three Visegrad countries – Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic – have for some time been seen by Russia as weak links in the solidarity of the European Union, as states ready to carry out large energy or infrastructure projects together with Moscow.

They may not have been pro-Russian, but the approach to the Kremlin has been pragmatic. This was convenient for Russia, but not important enough to maintain it at all costs. Recent events, however, show that this situation is changing, and the Kremlin is coming to terms with it. In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the Russian presence is already being reduced, and when the government changes in Hungary – and it is absolutely not out of the question that we will see this sooner rather than later – the same will happen.

Is this related to your April article on Carnegie.ru? You wrote there that a new 1948 has just arrived in Europe: “The new border between the two camps is consolidating, it will no longer be possible to cross to the other side, but also not to take sides.”

Of course, on both sides – Western and Russian – I see a readiness to radically reduce contacts. This tendency has coincided with the pandemic, and the economic downturn is further encouraging a weakening of relations. Impatience with one another has been building up for years until it finally reached its climax. It will take a lot of time to return to the formula of contacts from even two years ago, and I am not convinced that it is possible at all.

I also think that the recent events in the Czech Republic clearly show that the time when you could be a member of NATO, of the European Union, and at the same time let the Russians build nuclear power plants in your country is coming to an end.

It’s over, you won’t be able to make deals with either one or the other anymore. And it’s not just about Russia, but also, for example, China — you can see it, for example, in the discussion concerning the 5G network.

And Russia will lose out — no one from the European Union will choose Moscow, so it will stay with Belarus, Kazakhstan and some smaller countries.

This is how it will be. But it cannot be ruled out that Russia itself will be forced to integrate more deeply into the Chinese camp, while losing some of its freedom to operate. What today appears to be a European-Russian border may in time become a Western-Chinese border.

Russia is indeed increasingly isolated. During the last May 9 parade – a key day in contemporary Russian state mythology – there was only one person standing next to Putin: the leader of Tajikistan.

I see this event differently. If Putin wanted to bring together many politicians, he would have done so. Instead, the Russian president wanted to make a friendly gesture to the Tajik leader, Emomali Rahmon. The Americans are withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan and intend to move them somewhere nearby – Tajikistan would be perfect for this. So at a time when the U.S. wants to warm up its relations with Dushanbe, Putin reminded the Tajiks who their true friend is. Besides, the anniversary was not a round one, and it is impossible to summon so many politicians to Red Square every year, because everyone gets bored with it.

Chinese influence is also enormous in Tajikistan. Coming back to China—do you think that at the decisive moment Moscow would actually side with Beijing rather than the West?

There will be no decisive moment, there will be a process and it is already underway. And Russia has no other choice, but to join someone. There are areas where it is self-sufficient, but there are also many areas where it needs other countries—on its own Russia is unable to export raw materials, develop technologies to exploit deposits on the Arctic shelf, or build a 5G network. So it needs to cooperate with someone. Today, anti-Western sentiment in the Russian elite is incomparably stronger than anti-Chinese sentiment. Perhaps Moscow would prefer to get closer to the West, but it knows it would have to pay a steep price for that, so the only alternative is China.

And all this finds its reflection in Central Europe. A report by Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, the Czech Respekt and the Russian Insider demonstrated that the purpose of the attack in Vrbětice was to weaken Ukraine’s military capabilities – the weapons were supposed to reach the Donbass front and the most intense stage of the war.

Here once again the logic of 1948 can be seen: our people break the rules – good, others do it – bad.

In what sense?

I am surprised that it is not emphasized at all that in the fall of 2014 the Czech Republic was selling weapons to one side of the conflict in defiance of the ban from Brussels. At the time, the European Union officially took the position that supplying equipment to Russia, but also to Ukraine, should not take place because it would lead to an escalation of the conflict. France and Germany firmly announced they would not do so. The Czech Republic, meanwhile, also rejected such a possibility at the time, and now it turns out that they were not telling the truth. The same applies to Bulgaria, which is involved in this matter. In attacking the warehouse in Vrbětice, the Russians followed the logic of war – “if you supply our enemy with weapons, you cannot expect us to be happy”. Such a reaction from Russia was to be expected.

And how do we know that the Czechs sold weapons to Ukraine? Was it happening with the consent of the Czech government?

In 2014, Brussels recommended that EU countries not send weapons to Ukraine—I emphasize that it was only a recommendation, but not following it would be very badly perceived. Already in August 2014, this embargo was lifted, but individual countries – including, for example, Germany – continued to apply pressure  to hold off on supplying Kiev with military equipment. In February 2015, the Czech Foreign Ministry even officially announced that Prague was not supplying Ukraine with any weapons. So much for the official level. But how was it in reality and did the Czech government know about these deliveries? Well, even if the equipment was sent by a private company (which was the case here, as demonstrated by the Bellingcat investigation), it still had to obtain the appropriate export license from the authorities. In other words, the authorities could not have been unaware that weapons were moving from their country to Ukraine. 

The attack has important consequences for Russia itself: the Czechs will not buy the Russian vaccine, and Rosatom will not expand the Dukovany nuclear power plant.

For many years now, the Kremlin has assumed that the West will always find a pretext to punish Russia and withdraw from joint projects.

Or maybe the Russians have already crossed so many red lines and been punished so many times with various sanctions, that nothing makes an impression on them. Maybe Putin thinks that since they view Russia as a rogue state, it can do anything, it has less and less to lose.

On the one hand, successive sanctions are definitely making less and less of an impression on the Russian government. In 2014, they were a real problem, and the concern was that Russia would now be seen as a new Iran or North Korea. Today, Kremlin decision-makers already see that the world has not come to an end, that Western sanctions may not be pleasant, but they can be lived with. They see that if the West puts more politicians or companies on its blacklists, no disaster will happen. Maybe disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT payment system would be a major problem, but beyond that?

On the other hand, I do not think that the Russian regime will reject pragmatism—it acts cynically,  but also rationally. The Kremlin is not going to simply start murdering citizens of European Union countries and carry out new terrorist attacks. It must have a very specific goal in mind each time.

Yes, Czech citizens were killed in Vrbětice, but even the authorities in Prague themselves admit that this was not the Russians’ intention; it happened by accident. The Kremlin has not lost its restraints, there still are red lines it will not cross – it does not intend to go on the warpath with NATO countries, for example.

It has restraints in foreign policy, but in domestic policy?

It is true that the repressive apparatus is expanding rapidly. It is well known that what happened today to Alexei Navalny and his entourage will eventually happen to other opponents of the regime. The system is still in the learning stage. Previously, there were at least some procedures in place—yes, the courts passed sentences under political pressure, but they couldn’t completely ignore facts and talk about scenarios. Now things are different.

Or perhaps just as sanctions are making less and less of an impression on Russia, the West is no longer as interested in Russia’s actions. When the Skripals were assassinated three years ago, the reaction of the West was immediate and firm. In the case of the Vrbětice attack, the response was much more restrained.

Are you saying that the West has become accustomed to Russian games and will become increasingly forgiving? No, it’s not like that. The West’s moderate response to the Vrbětice attack is linked to, among other things, Prague’s lack of a coordinated strategy. The Czechs did not prepare their partners for the fact that such information would appear; they changed their position, accused Russia of terrorism, then retreated from such accusations, then it turned out that Prague had known about it all for a long time, and so on. If the Czechs themselves were not able to agree on the version of events, how can one expect the European Union or NATO to present a united front with a joint statement? All this says more about the problems of the Czech Republic than about the problems of the Western alliances.

And how do you explain the fact that the Czech authorities knew for some time that Russia had been behind the attack in Vrbietice, but concealed it?

We know that indeed the Czechs were hiding the matter and I don’t think they were doing it altruistically. Most likely, instead of publicizing the case, they wanted to use it as a bargaining chip in their talks with Moscow. The case came to light a few days before Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamáček’s visit to Moscow—it is possible that the Vrbětice issue would have been discussed bilaterally there. There are also strong business ties between the two countries, and no one wanted to jeopardize them. It was not profitable for anyone.

It was believed for a long time that the Russian security services were all-powerful, and defectors to the West – such as Viktor Suvorov or Aleksandr Litvinenko – reinforced this view with us. But isn’t the Vrbětice case further proof of their ineptitude? Recently, many failures of the Russian security services have been publicized: the assassination attempts on Navalny, the disclosure of the identity of his persecutors or the leak of the identities of many Russian intelligence officers.

Things are not so bad with the Russian services. Take, for example, last year’s hacking attack on the critical U.S. infrastructure. Russian hackers broke into some of the most guarded U.S. systems – the Treasury, Justice, Energy or State departments – and penetrated them for nearly a year. This is an extremely complex operation, a great success. But on the other hand, we have a Russian agent explaining to Navalny about a failed assassination attempt on him or Petrov and Bashirov explaining to the cameras that they went to Salisbury to see a nice cathedral. I think that in every service there are prestigious and more effective branches and non-prestigious and less effective ones. The latter try to distinguish themselves with spectacular successes, and thus do even more foolish things. This is not only a Russian specialty.

Why, then, were the less successful ones ordered to kill Navalny? It seemed a rather important task–it was not carried out and now the Kremlin has a huge problem with the opposition.

Domestic issues are always minion work. I think it works the same in all security services. If you can’t do much, get on a train, a plane, follow Navalny and sprinkle something in his drink. But it turned out that they couldn’t even do that, and if they couldn’t operate in Tomsk then how could they be sent to Washington, or even to Vrbětice?

Zbigniew Rokita

Zbigniew Rokita is a Polish reporter. He specializes in the issues of Central and Eastern Europe and Upper Silesia. In 2021, he was awarded the Nike Literary Award for the book Kajś. Tales about Upper Silesia (2020).

Maksim Samorukov

is an analyst at the Russian think tank Carnegie Moscow Center. He specializes in Central Europe, the Balkans and Russian foreign policy issues. He previously worked as a journalist for the independent portal Slon.ru.

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