Thirty years after Czechoslovakia ceased to exist, the Czech Republic will help neighboring Slovakia protect its more than 100-kilometer eastern border in the wake of Russia's war in Ukraine. Some 650 Czech soldiers will lead the 2,000-strong multinational NATO military operation in Slovakia, the largest Czech foreign deployment in many years.
Hundreds of soldiers from The Netherlands, Poland, Germany and 400 US troops are also part of the contingent to be stationed in eastern Slovakia, along with the Patriot air defense system.
Slovakia relies on Czech support
According to polls, most Slovaks have for years been opposed to the NATO military presence in Slovakia, especially the presence of American soldiers. The left-wing opposition in particular is strongly anti-American. However, Russia's war against Ukraine has changed people's attitudes, and in addition, the participation of Czech soldiers is widely accepted in Slovakia because of the two countries' good relations.
"Relations between Slovakia and the Czech Republic are exceptional," Slovak Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad said on Czech television. He pointed out a treaty on joint airspace defense that has been in place for several years.
"Our pilots can shoot down foreign aircraft over the territory of the Czech Republic, and Czech pilots can do the same over Slovak territory if necessary. That is a really big transfer of sovereignty, that is what makes our cooperation possible," he said.
Sending Czech soldiers to Slovakia comes as a reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, according to Czech Deputy Defense Minister Frantisek Sulc. "We have been committed to protecting the Baltic States for a long time. When NATO started preparing to send a contingent to Slovakia, it seemed natural to us to offer our soldiers there," Sulc told DW, adding the Slovak side wanted Czechs to be the commanding country of the alliance unit, which NATO approved.
A long tradition of foreign missions
Three decades after the collapse of the joint state, relations between the Czech Republic and Slovakia are remarkably good. Hundreds of thousands of Slovaks live, work or study in the neighboring country, Slovakia is the Czech Republic's second largest economic partner after Germany and the country in which Czech companies invest the most. New presidents and prime ministers always take their first trip abroad to their respective neighboring nation.
As early as the 1990s, both countries had shrugged off any feelings of injustice concerning the separation of the two parts of the country and the unequal division of the budget between Czechs and Slovaks, Sulc said. Relations are better than ever, he said, adding that this was also true for cooperation between the armies — "we work well together within NATO."
"These are really large deployments of soldiers. The Czech army has a long tradition of foreign deployments, including large contingents in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and participation in Afghanistan," he said.
"It is certainly the most acceptable option for Slovak society, better than if Germans or Americans were to head the NATO unit," Vit Dostal, executive director of the Czech Association for International Affairs (AMO) told DW, adding that deploying Czech soldiers in Slovakia is the most acceptable option for Czech society, too.
With 18,000 soldiers and largely outdated equipment, the Slovak army is one of the weakest in NATO. The country's air force has only a few modernized MiG-29 fighter planes, while the Czech Air Force has a relatively large fleet of 35 Gripen and ALCA fighter planes. The army, with 35,000 troops, is also stronger than the neighboring country's force and has 119 tanks and about 500 armored fighting vehicles. The Czech Republic, with a population of ten million, spent about €3.6 billion ($3.9 billion) on defense in 2021, 1.46% of GDP. Slovakia, on the other hand, with a population of five million, spent two billion euros, about 1.75% of GDP.
Czech support for Ukrainian refugees in Slovakia
While hundreds of Czech soldiers from the NATO mission are still packing their bags for Slovakia, 50 Czech soldiers have already been deployed on the Slovak-Ukrainian border since March 7, 2022, by request from Bratislava to help process refugees. "Czech soldiers have these past days set up a humanitarian base with a capacity of up to 400 people near Liptovsky Mikulas," Colonel Magdalena Dvorakova of the Czech army general staff told DW.
The camp, which is equipped with an electricity generator, tent heating and other facilities, was set up by March 11. "Twenty Czech soldiers remain on site to ensure the operation of the humanitarian base," Dvorakova said.
By March 14, 2022, some 150,000 refugees had arrived in Slovakia, about half of whom remained in the country. Many traveled on to the Czech Republic.
This article has been translated from German.