On June 24, the first contingent of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) multinational battlegroup set up to guard Slovakia’s eastern flank and commanded by Czech forces became operational (Mise.army.cz, June 26). Slovakia joins Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria as the newest recipients of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP), which, before the current Russian re-invasion of Ukraine, was only deployed in Poland and the Baltic States (Ministerstvo Obrany, May 4, 2022). Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable that Slovakia would invite NATO and US troops for an extended stay on its territory. In fact, last January, Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová was ridiculed by the opposition—even accused of being an “American spy” by former prime minister Robert Fico’s party—for asking that NATO station troops in Slovakia (Strana-smer.sk, January 21; EurActiv February 4). Now Fico’s far-left party SMER, which has historically opposed NATO and trumpeted Russian support, conceded that Russia is at least partially responsible for the tragedies in Ukraine. SMER and other Russophilic fringe parties in Slovakia, such as Ľudová Strana and Hnutie Republika, have also toned-down their criticism of NATO.
Put simply, the Slovak threat perception of Russia has radically shifted from a purportedly delicate strategic partnership supported by “Slavic brotherly affinity” to a more hostile view of the massive country as a regional aggressor that controls key energy imports. This shift puts Slovakia closer in line with the long-standing views of neighboring Czechia (Czech Republic) and Poland.
A country’s threat perception has two main components. The first is the ontological security of a state informed by identity, diplomatic relations and historical grievances. For example, the notion of the Russian Empire is mutually exclusive with the independence of the Polish state. The second component is physical security dictated by geopolitical factors, such as proximity to adversarial states. While in modern warfare physical security can be affected from a distance, such attacks rarely threaten the existence of a state.
Thus, a state like Poland, which is both proximate to the Russian Federation and existentially threatened by Russian aggression, would likely experience the highest levels of threat perception vis-à-vis Russia. Czechia, meanwhile, is not proximate to Russia, but it has caustic diplomatic relations, numerous historical grievances and has been on the receiving end of several “hybrid”-style attacks from Russia—culminating in a hack of Czech hospital servers in early 2020 that severely undermined its healthcare system’s COVID-19 response (Irozhlas, April 20, 2020; Aktuálně, May 11, 2021). In contrast, Slovakia had experienced limited ontological security threats from Russia and, prior to the 2022 re-invasion of Ukraine, was one buffer state away from Russia. These dynamics are further confirmed in recent survey data.
Bratislava-based GLOBSEC, which offers the most comprehensive accredited polling in Central Europe, found in 2019 that 80 percent of Czechs and only 56 percent of Slovaks said they would vote to stay in NATO if a national referendum was held. Well over half of Slovaks said they thought the North Atlantic Alliance “deliberately provokes Russia by encircling it with military bases”; while closer to a third of Czechs said the same. Perhaps the most striking and relevant question to threat perception was whether respondents thought the United States or Russia presented “a significant threat to their country.” Forty-one percent of Slovak respondents thought the US posed a threat, and only 26 percent pointed to Russia. Czechs expressed the inverse. Only 20 percent of those polled responded affirmatively to the US security threat, while 52 percent characterized Russia as a threat (Globsec.org, December 12, 2020).
The reason for this wide divergence in threat perceptions between Slovaks and Czechs three years ago stems, first of all, from the historical differences between their respective states. While the 1968 Prague Spring and ensuing Warsaw Pact invasion left a permanent stamp on the Czech psyche, Slovakian lands were more removed from the Soviet/Russian attack on demonstrators, mainly confined to Czechoslovakia’s capital. Besides less historical animosity, Slovakia has a greater trade reliance and energy dependence on Russia. Finally and perhaps most significantly, Slovakia has further succumbed to Russian disinformation, as some sources suggest (SME Domov, May 31). While the Czech Ministry of Defense laid out a strategic paper on hybrid warfare that specifically addressed Russian disinformation campaigns (Mocr.army.cz, 2021), no equivalent action has been undertaken by the Slovak Ministry of Defense.
Slovakia is more politically polarized, its population has less trust in its political system and it has more far-right and far-left political parties in parliament, providing a fertile environment for disinformation campaigns (Teraz, March 6, 2022). But Russia’s violent aggression on Slovakia’s doorstep and the half a million refugees fleeing through Slovakia’s 100-kilometer border since late February 2022 have severely undermined the Kremlin’s information warfare efforts.
The Czech Ministry of Interior has identified two seemingly contradictory Russian meta-narratives to its disinformation campaigns targeting Central Europe (Mvcr.cz, accessed June 30). The first narrative to justify Russian aggression has been casting itself as the “victim” whose incursion into foreign states is necessary to break through the circle of military bases that NATO has constructed around it (Manipulátoři, October 12, 2019). The second narrative asserts that the Russian military is so powerful that any resistance to it is futile (Mvcr.cz, accessed June 30). Recent GLOBSEC polling found that populations in Central and Eastern Europe that believed one of these narrative were also more likely to believe the other (Globsec.org, May 31).
Grisly scenes of executions of civilians, destruction of churches and attacks on towns that had no military value have severely weakened the first media narrative of Russian victimhood. The second media narrative of Russia as an indomitable superpower has suffered even more, particularly at the start of the war. This leaves the Kremlin with little more other than to threaten Western neighbors with nuclear annihilation (Cz.sputniknews.com, June 15).
Several months into the Russo-Ukrainian war, the perceptions of Moscow among both Czechs and Slovaks have begun to more closely align: roughly half of respondents from each Central European country believe Russia will not stop at invading Ukraine. Moreover, both now express similar views on whether NATO forces should provide direct combat support to the embattled Ukrainians. Slovaks polled were still more likely to say that Ukraine oppressed ethnic Russians or that the West provoked the war but by a significantly smaller margin than in 2019 (Globsec.org, May 31).
Public perceptions demonstrated in survey data can be fleeting—and elected officials in Slovakia are not representative of current trends in public thought. Yet several Slovak fringe parties have notably already adjusted their foreign policy stances based on events in Ukraine. The longer the war rages, and the closer it comes to the Slovak border, the more permanent those negative threat perceptions of Russia will likely be.