An exposé published today by the Czech news magazine Respekt has blown the lid off a major spy scandal that played out in Prague over the last few months. The report, based on sources inside the Security Information Service (BIS), the Czech counterintelligence agency, reveals that no less than three Russian intelligence officers have been declared persona non grata by Prague in the last nine months.
The first case involved a Russian diplomat who was not accredited to the Prague embassy, rather he had recently come from another (unidentified) country, but was in the Czech Republic when he wound up on BIS radar. Czech counterintelligencers determined that the “diplomat” was engaged in espionage — exactly what he was doing was unclear — and he was sent on his way.
More serious was the case of two Russian diplomats whom BIS determined were engaged in espionage on Czech soil. One was accredited to the Russian Embassy in Prague, while another was soon headed there: the Czech Foreign Ministry PNG’d the diplomat who was already in Prague and informed Moscow that his co-worker was not welcome and should not report to the embassy.
The current Czech center-left government has been cautious in its dealings with Moscow, preferring not to anger the Russian bear, so this spy affair was kept out of the media — until today. Sensibly, Czech officials have declined to comment on these linked cases. However, today’s report indicates that two Czech diplomats have been PNG’d by Moscow, in customary tit-for-tat retaliation for the BIS operations that unmasked the three Russian spies.
The Respekt report notes Russia’s unusually large diplomatic presence in the Czech Republic, with a total of 125 accredited diplomats — by comparison Beijing has twenty-eight diplomats in Prague while the Americans have seventy — of whom something like thirty are assessed to be intelligence officers by BIS.
And that high number may be an major understatement. In its annual counterintelligence report released last October, BIS stated that the number of Russians spies in the country was “extremely high,” and they were actively targeting several sectors of politics, security, and the economy. Both Russian agencies that conduct espionage abroad, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), are active in the Czech Republic, and both send illegals — that is, officers operating without official cover, i.e. they’re not pretending to be diplomats, what Americans term non-official cover or NOCs — so the real number of Kremlin spies in Prague may be far larger than BIS is aware of.
A Central European senior counterintelligence officer told me, with regard to today’s news from BIS, that the Czech Republic continues to be a “Bohemian playground” for the SVR and GRU, despite BIS efforts, and notwithstanding the fact that in recent years the Russians are the Czechs’ top counterintelligence problem. The problem is mostly political, since Prague does not want to cause a full diplomatic war with Moscow over aggressive Kremlin espionage in the country, preferring to handle matters discreetly, if at all.
Recent years have seen several Russian spy scandals erupt in the Czech Republic. Back in 2009, two Russian diplomats who were caught spying on NATO were PNG’d, and two Czech diplomats were promptly thrown out of Russia in return. Not long after, three generals in the Czech military resigned when their tawdry involvement in a Russian spy game was revealed: one was Prague’s representative to NATO. The implications of the case for the Atlantic Alliance were troubling, and led to concerns in NATO capitals that Prague was falling under the Kremlin’s spell.
In response, reluctant Czech politicians authorized BIS to go harder on the outsized SVR and GRU presence in the country. Today’s report in Respekt tells part of that clandestine tale. Old CI hands in the Danubian region tell me that there’s more going on in the Czech-Russian SpyWar than just this episode, but certain operations remain on-going and the public might not be informed about them for some time. As Russian espionage against the West ramps up to levels last seen at the height of the Cold War, you can be sure there’s a lot going on in the dark streets of Prague, as well as in many NATO capitals, that the media hasn’t been told about quite yet.