Pro-russian tendencies pose a risk to Slovak armed forces

F-16, Creative Common

In mid-July the Slovak Ministry of Defence announced that the Slovak Army would buy American F-16 jet fighters. Not only the price (estimated at 1.7 billions of EUR, which makes it record high army procurement in Slovakia) but also the selection of manufacturer stirred Facebook waters in Slovakia. As expected, big pro-Russian and anti-NATO community on Slovak internet started to scream. Among them – some active and retired soldiers of the Slovak Army.

We contacted one ex-military member that was active in Facebook discussions on this topic (as he doesn’t want to uncover his identity to the public, we will call him Martin). The former soldier claims online that procurement for American jet fighters is too expensive and it is made to get rid of staff that is at the moment flying and servicing Russian-made Mig-29 jets. Martin thinks that new Mig-35 jets would be better suited for the Slovak Army and would cost much less. Experts on the other hand are saying we can’t compare Mig-35 and F-16 as they are different in technical aspects and military-wise the newest F16 model is considered superior to the Russian fighter.

For Martin, procurement of new jets is a clear tactic to get rid of Russian suppliers and mechanics that are at the moment present in Slovakia. Martin’s confession is uncovering other phenomenon inside the Slovak army, meaning clear tendencies of some army members turning their hearts and minds to east. Martin doesn’t recognize himself as a pro-Russian minded but he thinks army should be neutral and not connected to “one-side” only. Asked what about then with the membership of Slovakia in NATO, he responds: “It is just an economical trick of the United States how to find buyers for their military equipment”. And this is not only lone Facebook “troll” and his views, as Martin states he personally knows tens of active and retired army personnel with similar opinion.

Slovakia is NATO member from 2004 and after 14 years of membership it is still facing trust issues from the public. Opinion polls show that in 2005 (year after NATO admission) 54% of Slovaks were in favor of NATO membership, in 2017  58% citizens were on the “NATO side”.

What are the thoughts inside the military? We don’t know for sure, but  source close to the Slovak Army General Staff confirms that inside the Slovak army there are Pro-Russian tendencies. “I think it is same as in general population, maybe a little bit higher but not significant, which would make around one-third of active personnel”, he says. Even with such high number, there are no signs of unfulfilled or botched tasks that are NATO relevant. Our source continues: “For soldiers it is often just a command that they need to do as well as they can, so they do” is his statement on the obedience to NATO tasks.

Another example of Pro-Russian tendencies can be found in the recent controversies with a paramilitary group called “Slovenskí branci” (Slovak recruits). The group is known for their open Pro-Russian and right wing inclinations. Recently it was confirmed that the group underwent a training with armored personnel carrier at the Night Wolves facility in Slovakia. The ministry of defence found out that some army soldiers were members and instructors for this paramilitary group. As conclusion, the army fired all soldiers that were members of the group.

For Martin, this is another example of incompetence inside the army: “They fired them, because they took things into their hands. They wanted to prepare young men for the army, instead army kicked them out”. Armed forces itself has problems with communicating this problem to outside world. Even though army is doing their recruiting, army recruiters don’t want to attend various events organized by the military enthusiasts or sport organizations because they don’t know if the “Slovenskí Branci” would not attend. This is also showing a problem inside the army that there is no clear way how to communicate and what is the official stance on various topics. Some rumors from inside the army even suggest that the General Staff is not against convergence to the East.

The reputation of the General staff was lowered by political decision to put Daniel Zmeko in Chief of General Staff position. Zmeko was promoted to highest position from third tier of General Staff. This decision of Slovak national party, which have the minister of defence chair in their hands, led to withdrawal of deputy chief of general staff, Pavel Macko. Macko was highest ranked military personnel from Slovakia in NATO structures. This was leading to confirm that Slovakia is departing from its pro-NATO heading when the army is under the Slovak national party rule. Their leader and Chairman of  the National Council, Andrej Danko, often visits Russia and he is publicly against EU sanctions on Russia.

All this problems are, according to experts, related to lack of education, values propagation, no communication strategy or public discussion on the way the Slovak military is heading. Army leaders and also political figures are often not able to make strategic and long-term plans that would bring more stability and professionalism into the armed forces. For Slovakia it is still a long way to fully integrate itself to the Western forces pact.