By Robert Muller
PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech Republic does not favour hosting foreign NATO troops as part of the alliance's plans to boost its eastern wing over the Ukraine crisis, its defence minister said, in sharp contrast to some of its regional peers.
Martin Stropnicky, whose country joined NATO along with Poland and Hungary in 1999, also accused Russia in an interview of waging a "disinformation campaign" in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Europe over its policies and goals in Ukraine.
NATO's top military commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said last week the alliance would have to consider permanently stationing troops in eastern Europe as a result of increased tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
Poland has asked for a permanent NATO presence on its soil and says it is working on practical proposals to be discussed at the alliance's summit in Wales in September. But Prague, invoking its Cold War history, is much less keen.
Stropnicky said Czechs remained wary of any foreign troop presence as a hangover from the 1968 Soviet invasion of the former Czechoslovakia, even though any NATO forces would only come at the invitation of the Czech authorities.
"We know well how any permanent stationing (of troops) is still a problem. I belong to the generation that experienced the 80,000 Soviet troops based here during the period of (post-1968) 'normalisation' and it is still a bit of a psychological problem," Stropnicky told Reuters.
He said he could see some expanded cooperation on training and other activities but not troops. "Raising the alliance's presence on our territory in various modifications, yes. But when it comes to actual units, I am rather sceptical," he said.
Moscow's annexation of Crimea and its support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have triggered the biggest crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War.
On Monday, Ukraine's acting president, Oleksander Turchinov, accused Russia of working to overthrow legitimate state power in his country after pro-Russian rebels declared victory in a rebel referendum on self-rule in eastern regions.
"MANIPULATION OF FACTS"
Unlike Poland, the Czech Republic does not share a border with Ukraine.
A few years ago, Prague's plans to host a U.S. missile defence radar backed by the George W. Bush administration ran into strong public opposition in the Czech Republic.
The plan had the support of the previous Czech centre-right administration, which had stronger pro-U.S. leanings than the current centre-left cabinet. The Obama administration eventually shelved the missile defence plan.
Stropnicky said Russia was manipulating facts over Ukraine.
"Total deliberate manipulation of facts, data, circumstances, important details - that is one of the basic means the Russian side is working with," he said.
"We are witnessing a quite intensive disinformation campaign on our territory, and not only on ours but also on some other European countries, including the large ones," he said.
Russia strongly opposed its Soviet-era satellite nations joining NATO and President Vladimir Putin has cited the alliance's eastward expansion as a reason for its annexation of Crimea. Moscow fears Ukraine might also one day join NATO.
The Czechs took part in the Afghan war and sent troops to Iraq but have failed to keep military spending above NATO's proposed target of 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
Czech defence spending currently stands at 1.08 percent of GDP and domestic political debate has largely focused on preventing any further decline rather than pledging any swift increases in light of the Ukraine crisis.
"There is a certain consensus that a further decline is unthinkable. Now the issue is about defending and negotiating a reasonable gradual increase," Stropnicky said.
Czech media reported last week that an initial draft budget from the finance ministry envisages a further decline of about 1 percent in military spending next year.
The initial draft is always subject to further discussions that usually lead to a higher subsequent allocation of funding.
(Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Gareth Jones)