Russia Cast as Risk by Czechs as Peace in Ukraine Looms

A peaceful resolution in Ukraine wouldn’t be enough relieve strains in NATO’s relationship with Russia, whose actions have compromised ties built since the Berlin Wall fell, Czech Defense Minister Martin Stropnicky said.

President Vladimir Putin’s gambit in Ukraine has changed the perspective on Russia as a partner and will continue to shape the Kremlin’s interaction with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Stropnicky said in an interview in his office near the Prague Castle yesterday.

“The Russian attitude is a sort of disappointment as the West thought for some time that it’s possible to hold talks with Russia and that they won’t act as if former Soviet states were their exclusive territory and not independent countries -- that didn’t go well,” Stropnicky said. “The relations between Russia and the Western world are likely to remain in the current mode, if Russia remains” under Putin’s control.

The hardening attitude reflects the change sweeping Europe’s security landscape in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine that exposed NATO’s eastern flank. Ukraine and its allies in the U.S. and Europe accuse Russia of dispatching troops and backing militias in the conflict that the United Nations estimates has killed more than 3,200 people. Russia has repeatedly denied involvement and is blaming its former adversaries for stoking the unrest.

Russia’s Eyes

“In Russia’s eyes, NATO is an enemy,” said Stropnicky, an actor and diplomat who became defense minister in Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s government in January. “It would be naive to think that Russia will ever see NATO as anything different.”

The assessment shows an effort by the Czech Republic, a former Soviet satellite that’s now a NATO and EU member, to balance security and economic interests as Europe crafted measures to punish Russia. During negotiations in Brussels, the Czech government focused on shielding its economy from the impact of trade restrictions.

Stropnicky’s comments also mark a realization that new threats won’t dissipate with a peaceful outcome in Ukraine. The Ukrainian crisis probably will be felt for at least 10 to 20 years, former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and the frontrunner to return to the post said yesterday.

Russia is breaching “the foundation of our coexistence in Europe” by destabilizing eastern Ukraine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said this month in Berlin.

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko said the worst is over in the conflict with separatists in the east of the country and that he must focus on domestic reforms to prepare for elections next month and his country’s EU membership bid.

NATO Encroachment?

Putin has criticized the U.S. and EU countries for encroaching on former communist eastern Europe, saying they have violated agreements signed at the end of the Cold War and pose a threat to his country’s national security. He’s suggested Ukraine switch to a federal system that would give regions a veto over major state decisions, such as EU or NATO membership.

NATO is swinging its firepower and strategic thinking back toward its original foe after two decades of missions in the Balkans and Afghanistan. At a summit in Wales this month, the 28-nation alliance agreed to shore up its defenses against a resurgent Russia by rotating more troops through eastern Europe and set up a rapid-reaction force.

NATO countries demobilized after the Cold War and sought to co-opt Russia as a partner. The alliance’s absorption of eastern European countries once under the Soviet yoke set the stage for the current tensions.

The U.S. and EU have imposed sanctions on Russian individuals and companies they blame for fueling the conflict.

“Pressure on Putin, including economic pressure, will probably lead to some agreement, but I think this may be only a temporary solution, and nobody knows exactly what will happen after that,” Stropnicky said. “Let’s not expect that an agreement signed now will automatically be valid for ever.”

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