Jan Jireš: Russia is the most immediate threat to the security of the Czech Republic and our allies

 21. 12. 2023      category: Interviews
Přidat na Seznam.cz

What threats the Czech Republic is facing and what needs to be done to ensure that the country's defence is strong and reliable are answered by the recently approved Defence Strategy of the Czech Republic 2023. This strategy revives the main priorities of the country's defence policy, such as a society-wide approach to defence, resourcing of the army and NATO membership. However, it also takes into account the new strategic documents of the Alliance and the EU. Moreover, the document builds on the Security Strategy of the Czech Republic from June this year and the previous defence strategy from 2017. The preparation of this key document was led by the Chief Director of the Defence Policy and Strategy Section of the Ministry of Defence of the Czech Republic, Jan Jireš PhD, who gave a comprehensive interview to the CZ DEFENCE editorial team.

Foto: Vrchní ředitel Sekce obranné politiky a strategie Ministerstva obrany ČR Jan Jireš | Michal Pivoňka / CZ DEFENCE
Picture: Chief Director of the Defence Policy and Strategy Section of the Ministry of Defence Jan Jireš | Michal Pivoňka / CZ DEFENCE

Could you introduce the document Defence Strategy of the Czech Republic 2023 and tell us what its main message and mission is?

The Defence Strategy is the government's top conceptual document in the field of defence. It sets the direction of our defence policy. It should be remembered that the document of the same type in force until then was adopted by the government in 2017 and was already hopelessly outdated, even if there have been no revolutionary changes in our defence and security in the last year and a half, especially as a result of the Russian aggression in Ukraine. As early as December 2021, the new government has already come out with the view that the government's core strategic documents in the area of defence and security need to be amended and updated, or simply re-created. To create a new defence strategy, the Minister and the Government had, shall we say, three impulses. The first impulse was that the Government knew when it came in that it had much greater ambitions in the area of defence than previous governments. The second impulse was, of course, the Russian aggression in Ukraine, which began in February last year. And the third impetus was the developments at the level of the North Atlantic Alliance in particular, but also the EU. Both of these security organisations, which are crucial for us, adopted new top-level strategic documents last year. In the case of the Alliance, this was the new NATO Strategic Concept, and in the case of the EU, it was the European Union Strategic Compass, and both of these documents are incorporated into our newly approved defence strategy in the national environment. 

How radical is the definition of threats compared to the previous document?

The fundamental shift is that the Security Strategy of the Czech Republic and the Defence Strategy of the Czech Republic explicitly mention the originators of the threats, i.e. Russia and terrorism. In the case of the People's Republic of China, it is a matter of naming the fact that the People's Republic of China is acting against the security interests of the Czech Republic and our allies. In a number of areas in both documents, of course, Russia and China are not on the same level. Russia is identified there as the most important, most significant and most immediate threat to the Czech Republic and our allies. However, both documents also deal with China in the sense that it is taking a number of steps and has a number of ambitions in the area of security that go against our security interests. And, of course, perhaps the most significant step today is China's cooperation with Russia in the military sphere.

Will the current conflict in Israel be included in the new defence strategy? 

The defence strategy has already been approved. It includes terrorism and international terrorism as one of the threats. It is not that the new defence strategy ignores or neglects this topic, but of course it is still true that the most important and immediate threat to the security of the Czech Republic and our allies is Russia. This is because of its geographical proximity, because of the systemic nature of the Russian threat to European security. What is happening in the Middle East is, of course, tragic. The Czech Republic is one of Israel's closest partners and supporters in Europe. It may be that the conflict will spread to the wider Middle East region, but this does not pose the same systemic strategic threat to the Czech Republic as Russia.

Do other Alliance countries have a similar document? Have you taken inspiration from abroad? 

This is a type of document that is quite common in the Alliance countries. But not all countries have it. Some countries, for various domestic historical reasons, do not make this type of document. But I think a significant number of NATO member states have a similar type of document, i.e. the National Defence Strategy and the National Security Strategy.

As I said, the two most important security organisations of which we are a member have a similar overarching strategic document. In the case of NATO, it is a strategic concept; in the case of the EU, it is a strategic compass. Both of these documents have been translated in an adequate form into our Czech environment through both the new security and the new defence strategy of the Czech Republic. This means that the new defence strategy is aligned with the new NATO strategic concept. However, we have not coordinated it directly with some other countries. There is no need for that.

Of course, when we were creating the defence strategy, we had previously read similar strategic documents of our allies and partners. These included a number of countries, such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Finland, other Scandinavian countries and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. We needed to know how our NATO and EU allies and partners approached the description of security threats and how they wanted to direct their defence policy. We wrote this based on our knowledge of what similar strategic documents of our allies and partners look like.

Who is this document for? Is it for the public or for the government? 

The Czech Defence Strategy 2023 is intended for both the public and the state administration. The problematic aspect of this type of document is that it actually has multiple types of audience. It needs to be written in such a way that it works for all of them. It is at the same time a central planning document, which is supposed to provide the terms of reference for all the follow-up planning processes in the Czech defence sector, but at the same time it is, let's say, the ultimate tool of strategic communication of the government towards the public, towards the media, towards our allies and partners in NATO and the EU, but also towards our potential adversaries and enemies. The document must therefore fulfil both of these functions. It has to provide both the basic assignment for the follow-up planning processes in the Ministry of Defence and it should effectively communicate to the Czech public in particular the basic and most important messages that the government wants to provide to the public. Sometimes it is not easy to reconcile these two functions. I think that we have succeeded. Of course, there is always a compromise.

The new defence strategy is significantly more detailed than the previous one from 2017. You can see that we have actually approached it in such a way that the document provides a realistic planning task for the Czech defence sector. At the same time, I think that the main messages of the government to the public are clearly highlighted there. There is a one-page executive summary at the beginning which very succinctly sets out the main messages to the public and to our allies and adversaries.

Perhaps just given the communication with the defense industry, are you planning some kind of executive order that would answer how the defense sector should behave in the context of any given situation?

The issue of the defence industry and the importance of the defence industry for our defence and for defence capability is very much highlighted in the document. Compared to previous documents, it is much more detailed and specific. It says that the defence industry is an integral part of the country's defence sector and a prerequisite for our defence capability, particularly in relation to security of supply and maintaining or ensuring the sustainability of the armed forces in combat. Of course, since defence strategy performs a variety of functions, it can only go into a certain level of detail and still has to remain fairly general. It provides an umbrella for any other follow-on sectoral, strategic or conceptual documents.

As far as cooperation with the defence industry is concerned, we have a conceptual government document called the Strategy for Armaments and Support for the Development of the Defence Industry of the Czech Republic until 2030. This is a document that details the forms of cooperation between the state, the armed forces and the defence industry. Of course, the question is whether, at some point, on the basis of the adoption of the defence strategy, we will not proceed to revise or amend this strategy for armaments and support for the development of the defence industry. We have similar follow-up documents, including the strategy for armaments and support for the development of the defence industry, for the practical and detailed elaboration of the various aspects outlined in the defence strategy.

In the case of national crisis management, there is the question of resources and reserves. Will the role of the State Material Reserves Administration (SSHR) change in any way, or does it have a clearly defined role?

I think the SSHR has its role clearly and well defined. The issue here is more traditionally a different one, namely to motivate all relevant ministries and authorities in the Czech Republic to regularly assess their needs in case of crisis situations, including defence-related crises, and to submit requests to the State Material Reserve Administration for the procurement of adequate material. This was very often not the case in the past decades. Many ministries did not understand why they should deal with this issue and did not consider that it was necessary to prepare for some crisis situations in terms of material.

However, this has recently changed very significantly and it is beginning to work as it should. The government, or rather the State Material Reserves Administration, is beginning to receive adequate assignments for the procurement of material from the relevant ministries. I would also like to stress that the whole process of preparing the defence strategy was very consistently inter-ministerial. The document did not originate in my office. The preparation took a year and we involved all other relevant agencies, including the SSHR. In the resulting defence strategy, specific mention is made of other key agencies and ministries whose involvement is essential for the defence of the state or for the preparation for the defence of the state. And of course the State Material Reserve Administration is one of them.

In what mode would the industrial enterprises concerned operate in the event of a threat to the state?

If a state of national emergency or a state of war is declared, the existing legislation already gives us the opportunity to, let's say, force industry to participate in ensuring defence. It is possible, for example, to impose a labour obligation. Our problem is how to set up relations in a situation where these higher states of emergency have not yet been declared. Of course, this is not just a problem for the Czech Republic; it is a problem for all NATO member states in general - especially the European ones.

We know that in order to prepare mainly deterrent measures within the Alliance, we need to operate in a formal peacetime. This means that we must constantly seek a modus operandi for cooperation between the state and the defence industry. Colleagues from the industrial cooperation section are looking for tools and ways. This must be a contractual relationship between the state and private companies, through which we can ensure, for example, that sufficient production capacity is maintained. It is clear that private companies must receive some financial compensation from the state for this. This is one area of cooperation between the state and industry. For the needs of crisis management or defence, where there must be constant communication and dialogue, we must look for adequate instruments, including contractual instruments, which will enable us to maintain the production capacity of companies.

Unlike many other NATO member countries, the Czech Republic is specific in that the vast majority of our defence industry is privately owned. The instrument must therefore be a contractual relationship and some incentives for private companies to be willing to do this. This is an area that is already addressed in the strategy for armaments and support for the development of the defence industry. Together with my colleagues, we are constantly thinking and working on how to improve the system, make it more efficient, make it more robust.

Does it play any role whether the company is in the hands of a domestic or foreign owner?  

Basically no. For us it is important to have production capacity in those segments where it is relevant. In the case of production of certain types of ammunition, it is important to have production capacity in the Czech Republic. I think it is irrelevant who is the ultimate owner of the company.

What role will the state-owned enterprises set up by the Ministry of Defence play in the defence strategy? 

Within the framework of Czech defence policy and defence preparation, state-owned enterprises play an absolutely crucial role, and this is true in all the phases that we may go through. In peace, in crisis and during conflict, directly subordinate SOEs are indispensable for ensuring the uninterrupted supply of services and material and for maintaining the deployability of the armed forces. It is for this purpose that SOEs were ultimately established. Certain competences and capabilities need to be immediately available and held by the state, for example because of the sensitivity of specific military technologies. SOEs also have a key position in the life cycle assurance system for military equipment.

A new message that has not appeared in the overarching strategic documents to date is the definition of the role of SOEs. It is now clearly stated that the primary task of a SOE is not to make a profit; the primary task of enterprises established by the Ministry of Defence is to serve the needs of the Ministry and the defence of the state. This means that the ministry has capacities at its disposal which it can put to practical use. And the other function of state-owned enterprises established by the Ministry of Defence is to maintain competences that would not, for example, hold up in private business because they would not be economically justifiable for private enterprises at the time. We simply need to maintain competencies because in a crisis or conflict situation we would need to mobilise and activate them. 

Do I understand correctly that these would be such accelerators of industrial cooperation? 

Exactly. Maintaining competence, I think, is a clear objective. To have some capacity somewhere, where there are people working who have specific knowledge that we need to have ready in reserve in case of a crisis or conflict.

Is it envisaged that a certain proportion of the 2% of GDP on defence will be devoted specifically to maintaining the competence of state-owned enterprises?

It is. The money that flows through our SOEs set up by the Ministry of Defence is part of defence spending.

In your view, is sufficient infrastructure also provided as part of the defence strategy? People talk about the Czech Republic in terms of rearguard action. As we are not a buffer state on our eastern border, it is assumed that we will be traversed, overflown and will be a supply base for the first line of conflict. What needs to be done to ensure that we are not a problem for the Alliance in this regard?

You're absolutely right. We're not really on the Alliance's eastern border. So if, God forbid, there were Russian aggression against NATO member states, the combat activity would probably take place east of the Czech border. The military units that we are preparing within the Alliance system for use in NATO's collective defence operations would be sent to the Alliance's eastern border, where the combat activity would take place. And we have all always known that since we joined NATO. Even the public understood that the Czech Republic's commitment was to prepare military forces within the scope defined by NATO.

It is only in recent years that we have begun to realise the second important task that we as the Czech Republic have in the Alliance. This is the all-round security of our territory for the reception, movement and support of allied military forces moving through our territory to their destination. It is only recently that Host Nation Support, or in Czech operational preparation of the national territory within the Alliance, has become a big topic and we have jointly realised with our allies that this is really the second necessary leg of an effective common defence. So it's not just about having military forces that we send somewhere for a joint collective defence operation, but we have to be able to secure our territory.

We need to realise the full likely scope of this. If, indeed, the Alliance had to deploy everything at its disposal for this purpose in the event of a collective defence operation, it would mean that tens of thousands of allied troops would be moving across the territory of the Czech Republic. It would be quite possible that at one point there would be tens of thousands of allied troops on the territory of the Czech Republic, which we would have to secure as part of Host Nation Support. It could be that at some point there would be more allied troops on the territory of the Czech Republic than the total size of the Czech armed forces.

Securing the territory of the state and ensuring the reception and support of allied military forces there is indeed a significant task for Czech defence policy. It is one of the two priority tasks described in the new defence strategy. It is therefore about building up forces for allied collective defence operations and, of course, there is a growing emphasis on all-round security for allied forces. This is a relatively fresh task even within NATO, as I said. And therefore there is still a lot of work ahead of both the Czech Republic and our allies.

It also shows that territorial security and defence is not only the task of the Ministry of Defence and the army. It is precisely for the security of the territory that we need the cooperation and collaboration of many other authorities, units and ministries, all the necessary bodies of public administration, but also society as a whole. In the case of allied troops passing through, it is mainly a matter of providing police escort, ensuring transport arrangements, providing means to ensure the basic necessities of life, food, drinking water, fuel, rest or medical security. Allied forces must be able to spend the night somewhere on the territory of the Czech Republic, we must provide all-round protection, including air defence, and there are also measures to counter the threat of a diversionary attack by allied units possibly operating on our territory.

It is also about creating the conditions for the conduct of successful military activity, i.e. securing space, deployment, covering part of the supply needs, including the construction of storage capacities, for example, forward ammunition depots. And, of course, all of this must include ensuring that allied forces in such large volumes can move efficiently across Czech territory, for which it is also necessary to have an efficient and capable transport infrastructure. It is necessary to have transport corridors, both road and rail, that are robust enough to carry heavy allied military equipment. At the same time, we must have alternative transport routes. I will give one hypothetical example. I do not want to scare anyone, of course, but in the event of massive movements of allied forces, we would have to reserve the D1 motorway exclusively for the needs of military transports. At that point, of course, the completed D35 would come in handy for civilian traffic, wouldn't it? Everything is connected to everything, and it shows how defence and defence provision is connected to the overall functioning of the state and to the purely civilian sector.

Which ministries were involved in the preparation of the Defence Strategy 2023?

First of all, it is the state as a whole. Individual ministries were involved in the preparation of defence through their membership of the Defence Planning Committee (DPC), a working body of the State Security Council. There, within the VOP, there was a comment procedure, we sat with representatives of other ministries repeatedly, we addressed specific issues. I communicated with colleagues from other ministries when we needed to clarify certain things, because context is an important strategic parameter. It is easy to write a nice document of this type, but it is useless. If I were to write a defence strategy, I would hole up somewhere for a weekend, open a bottle of wine and write the strategy in a weekend. It would be a nicely written strategy, but it would be completely useless, because a key aspect of strategic documents is the so-called ownership by all the institutions that we need to involve in defence and defence preparation in some way. That is why the process took a year. 

We also consulted the defence industry on partial aspects of the defence strategy. They sent us their comments. The process of preparing such a strategic document is as important as the final result. This process is also a kind of tool for educating colleagues from other authorities who do not normally deal with defence and security issues. The fact that we worked together with them on the defence strategy allowed us to discuss things. It is a document that has been approved by the Government as a result. It is not a document of the Ministry of Defence, it is not a defence strategy of the Ministry of Defence, it is a defence strategy of the Czech Republic. Of course, the document in this form does not contain specific tasks for other ministries. It is not that there are two, three or four tasks for this or that ministry. The defence strategy is not formulated in the form of tasks, but the document briefly describes the role of other key ministries. Over the course of the year-long process, other ministries and agencies have largely come to understand the defence issues and understand what their role is in preparing for defence. The important thing now is to implement the defence strategy.

As far as the development of the armed forces is concerned, the main implementation tool is now the new CDA, which is in its final stages and should be discussed by the government by the end of this year. This is a specific matter that concerns our ministry, or rather the Army of the Czech Republic, but preparation for defence and defence capability involves many other ministries. Therefore, of course, the government must guarantee or control in a systematic way that everyone is doing what they are supposed to do and that the defence strategy is implemented. We have a lot of different tools for that. It sounds a bit formalistic, but one of them is the so-called Report on the Provision of National Defence, which is a document that the Ministry of Defence draws up every year and submits to all the constitutional institutions in the Czech Republic. It is therefore submitted to the Government, to both Houses of Parliament and to the President. This material must be adequately expanded so that the report gives a realistic picture of defence preparations not only in the context of the Ministry of Defence, but of the state as a whole. It is a so-called 'cover' document (classified document, editor's note) precisely so that everyone can be completely honest. And this is one of the tools that the government needs to use effectively in order to really be able to manage and control the implementation of the defence strategy.

Can we say which ministries and institutions are contributing to this process?

In particular, the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Finance are key to the defence capability of our country. This also includes the State Material Reserves Administration or the State Office for Nuclear Safety. These are not only ministries, but also other central administrative authorities. When I mentioned communication with the arms industry, it was the Defence Industry Section of the Chamber of Commerce of the Czech Republic. We communicated with them in the process of preparing the document.

What role does civil protection play in the strategy?

It is provided by the Ministry of the Interior through the General Directorate of the Fire and Rescue Service of the Czech Republic. The Ministry of Defence handed over responsibility for this matter to the Ministry in 2008. At the same time, of course, it is again true that this is not a defence strategy of the Ministry of Defence, but a defence strategy of the Czech Republic. The defence strategy is concerned with defence as a whole, and therefore naturally includes a number of elements relating to the protection of the population. It addresses, for example, the issue of strengthening resistance to military threats, the preparation of citizens for the defence of the state - in general, defence security issues. The objectives in the area of population protection are defined in the Population Protection Concept 2025 with a view to 2030. This is the currently valid document covering this area. We conceive of defence as a government-wide and society-wide task. The Defence Strategy describes the role of the Ministry of the Interior and the Fire and Rescue Service as key to ensuring defence capability in this particular population protection agenda.

Does the Department plan to communicate with the population?

We are already doing this and will do it more and more. Of course, we have to do this in cooperation with the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of the Interior and the fire brigade in particular. Among other things, we are now working on a new concept of preparing citizens for national defence (POKOS). This is an agenda that falls under the Defence Policy and Strategy Section of the Ministry of Defence, which I manage. We should have a draft of this document ready by the beginning of next year, and we expect to multiply the methods and tools of our communication with the public, but we also expect to involve the public in preparing for defence, defence capability, and we will also focus on the general strengthening of the resilience of society and the state. This is certainly one of the priorities. 

Personnel is an important parameter of defence capability. We know the recruitment target plans of the Armed Forces until 2030. We know what role the active reserve would play in the event of a threat to the state. A new feature this year is the so-called voluntary predetermination. Have you had any feedback from within the ministry on how it is going to involve those who have not undergone military service and are not in the active reserve in the process of defending the state?

Voluntary predetermination is a new institution that is newly enshrined in Czech legislation. Its purpose is to broaden the range of ways in which citizens can show their commitment to national defence. It is another tool that can motivate citizens to think about how to get involved in preparing for defence and have an opportunity to do so. When a state of emergency is not declared, our options are quite limited. And it is precisely this reality that the new institution of voluntary predetermination responds to. If a citizen chooses to voluntarily predesignate, that creates, first of all, a group of people for the Department of Defense that they know something about. It is a voluntary inclusion in a register maintained by the Ministry of Defence, and that register shows who the person is, what he or she can do and what skills he or she would like to offer to the army. In this context, I would add that in the context of future warfare, it is not just about infantrymen, but it is about IT specialists and other expertise that we will need to provide a broad spectrum of defence. And the second thing is that those who are voluntarily predestined agree that they can be called up for military exercises before a state of national emergency or a declaration of a state of war. 

In your opinion, how prepared is the Czech Republic currently for potential threats? There are various surveys that look at how much of the population would be involved in the defence of the homeland.

The first thing is that, of course, the Czech Republic is fortunately not alone in its defence. Our active membership of NATO is the basis of our defence policy. Our entire national defence policy over the last twenty-five years has been based on this. Personally, I confess that I do not trust the polls. They are misleading, because I think the figures would be very different if there were Russian tank battalions near Trenčín. And when you ask about readiness, it has to be said that the defence strategy is quite open about the shortcomings in our defence. In the previous decades, defence and defence capability were fatally underfunded, which led to the creation of a huge internal debt, which is particularly evident in the neglected infrastructure. The war in Ukraine shows us how low the level of supplies of all kinds, including ammunition, is. And if there is any great synergy from Ukraine, it is the need for sufficient stocks. Which, again, is not just a problem for the Czech Republic, but for all European countries at least. NATO is addressing this intensively. Our defence strategy was approved at the beginning of October and it responds to the brutal funding deficit that has been accumulating here for several decades. We note the shortcomings in this document.

At the same time, we are also saying that in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Europe, there has been a somewhat bizarre situation where the country's defence system, including the related legislation, has in many respects been built on the right principles, but the individual elements have not then been developed in practice to the necessary depth and extent. There are many examples: the provision of Host Nation Support, the building of reserves, the ability to deploy the armed forces in war, the preparation of citizens to defend the state, or the operation of crisis management in the context of defence provision. These are all things that we have had in legislation for decades, but it has not really been addressed much. It has not been addressed anywhere in Europe. What we are now facing in a number of areas is just to implement realistically what we have been required to do by legislation for years.

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