Region: Reining in Russia's spy games
Security services talk up so-called Russian 'intelligence threat'
Posted: October 3, 2012
The Security Information Service has warned that Russian espionage poses significant threats to the Czech Republic, as corrupt local officials could provide opportunities to Russian businesses.
Last month, the Security Information Service (BIS) warned that Russian espionage was a serious, growing and aggressive challenge. It suggested there could be as many as 150 Russian agents within the country who could "pose an immediate risk to Czech citizens."
To drive home the message, Czech military intelligence (VZ) released its own report identifying Russia as their main threat.
Does this say more about Moscow's traditional role as Central Europe's bogeyman than actual Russian activity and intent? Or is there some unfolding campaign of undercover pressure?
Relations between Moscow and Prague have often been problematic for historical, economic and political reasons. Indeed, Russia's former ambassador to Prague, Alexei Fedotov - who stands accused by the Czech government of coordinating the espionage campaign - told the Czech newspaper Právo these reports were a "media fiction produced on political order."
However, not only do other countries' intelligence services corroborate Prague's line, it fits a general pattern across Central Europe. While the espionage activities of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and military intelligence (GRU) have increased globally, Central Europe is a region that seems of particular interest, within which the Russians are maintaining extensive, long-term operations. In 2010, for example, it emerged that deep-cover agent Robert Rakhardzho had been spying in the region since 2004. Rakhardzho fled to Russia and three Czech generals were forced to resign in disgrace.
But every country spies on enemies, neighbors and friends alike. Is this really something to get excited about? Yes, this is a big deal.
First of all, the scale of Moscow's efforts and the disproportionate numbers of Russian agents in Prague (and Warsaw, and Tallinn, and Budapest, and so on …) say something about their capacities and above all intent. Central Europe is definitely a region of particular interest.
Secondly, they do not just haunt the diplomatic and business cocktail-party circuit and pick up gossip (although that's inevitably a key element of the job). They are seeking specific leverage. For example, one aim (according to the BIS) is to identify corrupt local officials who could be blackmailed into providing information or opening opportunities to Russian businesses.
Interestingly, the VZ said the Russians were mainly after political and economic leverage. For example, Moscow is apparently especially interested in the Czech energy sector and the tender for the completion of the Temelín nuclear power plant in particular. One of the three consortiums bidding for this $25 billion contract is, after all, led by Rosatom.
This political interference extends to seeking to monitor and marginalize expatriates and immigrants from the North Caucasus and those opposing Russian abuses in that region. Russia's Federal Security Service, for example, claimed the Czech charity People in Need - which Moscow forced to abandon its humanitarian efforts in the North Caucasus in 2004 - was an al-Qaida front backing terrorism. (The Czech BIS rejected this claim.)
Beyond that, the BIS is also concerned that Russian spies are also seeking common cause with Russian gangsters. Russian organized crime is no longer as powerful in the Czech Republic as it was in the 1990s, but it may be coming back. The possibility that criminals might be in some loose alliance with Russia's intelligence services (or even just able to lure corrupt spies into their networks) is an understandably worrying one.
The Czech alarum may well have a certain partisan edge to it, but their warning does highlight the scale, nature and even expansion of Russian intelligence operations in Central Europe. Nowadays, Moscow's spies are agents of political influence, economic leverage and even criminal connectivity. And that presents a much more complex challenge than in the past.
- Mark Galeotti (Twitter: @markgaleotti) is professor of global affairs at New York University's SCPS Center for Global Affairs. His blog, "In Moscow's Shadows," can be read at Inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com
Mark Galeotti can be reached at