Vital Questions on Europe and Russia after the Vrbětice incident

1. Do you think that the Vrbětice incident will weaken Central Europe´s sympathy for Russia? Can it be a turning point in the perception of Russia as a real threat to national security in the region?

James Lamond, Director of the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis, United States: Over the last several years, we have learned that it is both difficult and dangerous to make political predictions, and this instance is no different.  

On the one hand, the Vrbětice incident is part of a series of violations of international norms and aggressive behaviour from Russia in recent years. This series of events has included: the use of chemical weapons on NATO soil; the invasion and occupation of large portions of neighbouring countries; an assassination in a Berlin park; an unparalleled cyber-hacking campaign; the likely use of directed-energy weapons to attack US diplomats; and interference in democratic processes around the world to encourage and support anti-democratic, pro-Russian, and pro-authoritarian political forces. This is only part of the list of malign activity abroad, which is paired with oppression at home, most notably with the recent poisoning, detention, and abusive treatment of Alexei Navalny. After each incident or revelation, there is a feeling that something must be done and something must change, but things quickly return to a familiar and destructive pattern.  

However, this moment does feel different. Neighbours in Central Europe were quick to express support and act in unison. Brussels increasingly feels frustrated with Moscow, particularly following Josep Borrell’s visit to Moscow earlier this year. And there is a new administration in Washington that is keen on countering Moscow’s malign activities. This new broader international environment, combined with revelations about how drastically Russia has been willing to violate the sovereignty of CEE countries in NATO and the EU, might just be a recipe for change.  

Grigorij Mesežnikov, President of the Institute for Public Affairs, Slovakia: Russia has been behaving like an enemy of the West for years. It is trying to dismantle the West and its integration groupings (EU and NATO) from within. It interferes with the integrity of political processes, including elections, in the countries of the democratic West, which we in Central Europe belong to, and takes active measures on their territory. Members of the Russian secret services conducted both successful and unsuccessful attempts to assassinate persons that the Kremlin saw as opponents, endangering the lives of EU citizens in Great Britain, Germany, Bulgaria, and as is now evident, in Czechia too. The propaganda machinery of the Kremlin regime creates a hostile attitude among the Russian people towards EU and NATO countries, and when Russian spies or killers make mistakes and blow their cover themselves, the level of hatred against NATO and the EU in Moscow increases. The Vrbětice case is no exception. This is neither the first nor the only case to confirm that Russia is threatening the security of democratic states. It is important that the governments of Central European countries should respond appropriately given the circumstances – that means promptly, vigilantly, and principally. Thanks to their decisive steps, even those citizens who have so far had illusions about Russia’s “friendly” intentions could correct their views. The citizens of Central Europe should realise that thanks to the interplay of favourable circumstances in the 1990s – successful internal reforms, the readiness of Western countries to open the doors of integration groupings to the peoples of Central Europe, and the then-weakness of imperial forces in the Kremlin – Central European countries were able to successfully return to Europe after the fall of communist regimes. Today, everything must be done to preserve these gains and to sustain them for as long as possible.

Željana Zovko, MEP, EPP Group, and Vice-Chair on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament, Croatia: The involvement of Russian secret services in the explosions in Vrbětice is a severe violation of Czech sovereignty and was rightfully condemned at all levels across the European Union. The joint statement of the Prime Ministers of the Visegrád Group and the strong messages of other leaders in the region and beyond, including the EU High Representative, and the conclusions of the European Summit in May, all show the wide support for Czechia and the clear opposition to illegal Russian activities on the territory of EU Member States.

However, the Vrbětice incident should not be singled out as a turning point in the European perception of Russia. It is rather part of a series of events that have increased general distrust in the EU towards Russia, such as the poisoning and jailing of Alexei Navalny, the Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian border, and the clear message of Minister Lavrov calling the EU “an unreliable partner” during the visit of HRVP Borrell to Moscow. These events have led to an accumulated frustration among European Member States that highlights the need for a united position towards Russia

2. The Vrbětice incident has not only disrupted the security of Czechia, but also of the entire EU and NATO. Do you think the solidarity of some EU member states that expelled Russian diplomats and the statements of the EU High Representative and NATO Secretary General are sufficient responses?

James Lamond: The solidarity shown by NATO, the EU, and other member states was an important signal sent to Moscow. Prague is also seen as a regional hub for Russian intelligence, so the expulsions there, combined with the five other Central and Eastern European neighbours, will likely have an impact on Moscow’s capabilities in the region. But the broader issue is that the transatlantic approach to Russia is often responsive in nature: Russia does something and then the US, the EU, NATO, and other member states react. The transatlantic community needs to take control of the relationship and start to define it along its terms, rather than Putin’s.  

An instructive template to consider is when in October 2018, US, British, Canadian, and Dutch authorities jointly and publicly revealed a widespread hacking campaign against the West and international institutions, accusing Russia. This case was notable for two reasons. First, the western countries exposed the scheme, revealing the details of Russia’s malign activity to the world. Rather than providing a quick summary, they held press conferences and presented detailed evidence of how the Russian suspects committed these crimes. They displayed the fake passports, vehicle license plates, and airport taxi receipts used, revealing the tactics of the Russian operation. This established the narrative about the crimes and put Putin on the defensive, rather than the other way around. Second, American and European allies presented a clear, united front. The indictments were announced in a carefully orchestrated manner, clearly communicating that this was a coordinated response among allies to Russia’s malign activity.

Grigorij Mesežnikov: Verbal expressions of solidarity with Czechia by the EU and NATO leadership, responding to the country becoming the target of sabotage and de facto terrorist Russian activities on its territory, can be considered sufficient. However, I expected the allied countries to be more active in expelling Russian diplomats. This time, Slovakia behaved the most solidly, expelling three Russian spies operating under diplomatic cover. Slovakia is a country with special, fraternal relations with Czechia, a partner in the former Czechoslovakia. Also, in this case, the well-known Czech-Slovak solidarity and reciprocity showed itself. Due to domestic political discrepancies, however, Czech diplomacy was apparently unable to convey to its allies in a clear and comprehensible manner what reaction to the Vrbětice case it expected from them. If Czech diplomacy had done so, perhaps the reaction of other EU and NATO countries to Russia’s subversive actions would be more robust.

Željana Zovko: Although the decisions of Czech and other European authorities to expel Russian diplomats were a direct response to the attack on Czech national security, in the long run, these measures will not alter Russia’s attitude towards the EU. After the recent escalations in EU-Russia tensions, EU leaders tasked HRVP Borrell and the Commission in the May Council Summit to prepare a report on the EU’s strategy towards Russia. The Member States concluded that the EU needs to review its policies and create a united and determined position to counter future security threats and to withstand attempts to divide us.

The European Union should invest in its strategic autonomy and a deterrence strategy to defend EU Member States against possible aggression of third countries. We must deliver on our commitments for collective defence made within the frameworks of the EU and NATO. We also need to contain disinformation campaigns and hybrid threats aimed at causing destabilisation and division in the EU and in its immediate neighbourhood. At the same time, the EU should conduct a strategic dialogue with Russia to de-escalate current tensions and to work on an improved mutual understanding and increased transparency.

3. In his recent report on the state of Russia, President Putin said that no one should cross the red line in relation to Russia. Where does the West’s red line lie vis-a-vis Russia? Can we expect it to be set on the occasion of the upcoming Biden – Putin summit?

James Lamond: Vladimir Lenin is commonly quoted as saying, “You probe with bayonets: if you encounter mush, you push. If you encounter steel, you withdraw.” Vladimir Putin appears to have taken this lesson to heart, which is why over the last few years he has continued to push against the West in new ways. This is also why it is somewhat ironic for him to issue his own warnings about ill-defined red lines.  

During the Cold War, there were red lines that guided espionage activities between the two sides, and each knew where they stood. The problem for relations with Russia today is that these red lines no longer exist, or at least no one knows where they are. A key goal of a Biden administration approach to Russia should be re-establishing where those red lines are and making clear the contours of the relationship. The upcoming summit between Presidents Biden and Putin will be the most significant opportunity to send a clear message that the Kremlin’s trajectory over the last few years is unacceptable. Coming directly from the G7 summit, meetings with European Union leadership and the 14 June NATO leaders’ summit will all provide the symbolic message of transatlantic unity. Hopefully, the substance will match the symbolism and Biden will be able to present a clear and united message to Putin.  

Grigorij Mesežnikov: That cannot be called anything but impudence – Russia invades neighbouring states, annexes and occupies their territories, supports separatist rebellions in these states, shoots down foreign civilian planes and shamefully denies it, interferes in elections in Western countries, organises coup attempts, murders emigrees which the Kremlin considers its enemies, uses banned chemical warfare agents against them, organises hacker attacks against the critical infrastructure of Western states, supports a lunatic dictator in Belarus who oppresses the people of that country; and Vladimir Putin has the audacity to teach the world about his own red lines. Russia has crossed all conceivable and unimaginable red lines in international politics, and is currently the aggressor and enemy of the West. The West must not be subject to Kremlin tricks, and should show no softness to Russian aggression, in any of its manifestations. You cannot meaningfully cooperate with the enemy; you can only coexist in a vigilant way, keeping the ability to respond harshly. The red line is our weakness, we must not allow it here.

Željana Zovko: The development of red lines should be a part of the reflection process on a European Russia policy. We cannot accept threats to the sovereignty of European Member States, not via military pressure, nor via direct or indirect interferences in democratic and political processes. The EU should stand firm to guarantee the security of our neighbouring states and condemn any violation of their territorial integrity.

Meanwhile, the EU should not refuse to communicate with Russia and must preserve dialogue with the Kremlin and Russian society. Diplomatic channels are a means to minimise divergence and build constructive strategic relations.

Our Russia policy would be most effective if it were based on coordinated actions with likeminded states. The transatlantic relationship will play a key role in this regard. European strategic autonomy that is compatible with NATO programmes will enhance the transatlantic ability to safeguard a rules-based international order. The new US administration has shown its willingness to improve the alignment of its foreign policy with the European Union, including in relation to Russia. The upcoming Biden-Putin Summit offers an opportunity in this regard to assess where the new US administration stands towards Russia and what we can expect from future transatlantic coordination.