A week before U.S. military vehicles were scheduled to enter the Czech Republic on the penultimate leg of their 1,100-mile public tour through Eastern and Central Europe, some local media were already issuing ominous warnings of possible anti-American violence.
And a handful of little-known opposition groups -- with names like "Tanks? No Thanks!" -- began sprouting up on Facebook and other social media, promising large and numerous demonstrations against the U.S. convoy.
The 200-vehicle convoy and 500 U.S. troops has spent the past week weaving through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, en route to its home base in Vilseck, Germany, following military exercises in the Baltics and Poland. The exercises themselves were meant as a demonstration of support for Eastern Europe amid fears of Russian military action beyond Ukraine.
The prospect of so many demonstrations in the Czech Republic -- whose current president, Milos Zeman, has expressed sympathy with Russia -- was echoed in the pro-Moscow English-language media. The Kremlin-financed Sputnik news site reported that a variety of Czech "activists" were planning a series of protests as "opposition mounts" to the convoy. And RT reported that Czechs were "unhappy" about the procession of "U.S. Army hardware."
But by March 28, protests in the capital Prague appeared to be evenly divided between supporters and opponents of the convoy.
And by the time the convoy made its three-pronged arrival into the Czech Republic -- crossing overnight March 29-30 from Poland into the towns of Nachod, Bohumin, and Harrachov -- the detractors were far outnumbered by residents welcoming the U.S. Stryker armored carriers and Humvees.
Thousands of people lined roads and motorways along the vehicles' entry points, snapping photographs and waving U.S. and blue NATO flags. Clutches of opponents stood to the side, carrying placards with anti-U.S. slogans provided by the Czech Communist Party.
In several cities, the U.S. soldiers were treated to Czech beer. In Bohumin, they even received a special escort by Czech members of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle club. By the time the convoy reached Prague, a planned opposition demonstration had fizzled to a handful of stalwarts, while at least 200 supporters braved sleet and heavy winds to greet the American troops.
Russia's Troll Industry
So what happened to the storm of virtual protests that preceded the U.S. arrival? Numerous online observers have suggested that it is the rising influence of Russia's troll industry that is behind the opposition drumbeat in the Czech Republic, where 82 percent of residents say they approve of the convoy's presence.
Particular attention has focused on dozens of purported "news" websites that have been launched in the Czech Republic and Slovakia with a distinct pro-Russian, anti-American line.
One of the most extreme, AE News, regularly prints falsified news reports aimed at demonizing the Ukrainian army and bolstering Kremlin claims about the presence of Western mercenaries in Donbas.
AE News illustrated its coverage of the U.S. military convoy with photographs of Hitler Youth and suggested the Strykers had used depleted uranium during the exercises and was now irradiating Czech territory during its drive-through.
AE News's anonymous editors has denied receiving any direct links to Russia; other publications -- including "Countercurrent," a pro-Kremlin site run by an adviser to the former Czech President Vaclav Klaus, have launched Russian-language editions and feature regular contributions from Russian pundits.
In a March 30 article published on the New Eastern Europe information site, Slawomir Budziak, a Polish journalist, notes that Czech intelligence agents had noted as early as 2013 an "extremely high" number of Russian intelligence officers operating on Czech territory in the guise of diplomats, tourists, and entrepreneurs.
"What is even more depressing is that the Czech state is donating to blatant propaganda activities on its own territory against its better judgment," Budziak adds.
He points in particular to an ethnic Russian businessman, Aleksandr Barabanov, whose publication, Artek, is blatantly pro-Kremlin yet receives much of its funding from the Czech Culture Ministry as a product catering to ethnic minorities.
In the weeks before the convoy arrived, Czech media warned against attacks on the U.S. troops.
TV Nova, the Czech Republic's most-watched channel, announced that anyone attempting to attack the convoy with "tomatoes or eggs" would be subject to up to three years in jail.
And the Czech Army Press said any acts of sabotage against the convoy would be seen as an attack on the country's own defense capabilities and punished accordingly.