This week’s release of the Czech Security Information Service’s (BIS) annual report was widely covered by Czech media and even some foreign outlets. What stood out was the considerable amount of detail that the public version contained on Russian and Chinese spying operations in the country last year. So what are these two states up to? And what are their reasons?
The first actor which the report focuses on in detail is Russia. This is perhaps not surprising as the Russian state has a very well-established base in the Czech Republic and Czech counterintelligence has long been pointing to the fact that the diplomatic mission of the Russian Federation is oversized.
Located in a massive villa in Prague’s Bubeneč neighbourhood, the Russian Embassy and the surrounding buildings related to the Russian mission are sometimes nicknamed the ‘little Kremlin’ by locals.
Earlier this year, attention was brought by the Czech newspapers Deník N to the fact that the embassy also administers hundreds of flats in the capital.
According to journalist Ondřej Kundra from the weekly magazine Respekt, who has written a book on Russian intelligence activity in the Czech Republic and focuses on the subject in his reporting, the origins of a strong Russian intelligence base in the country stretch back to the 1960s era of the Prague Spring movement in Czechoslovakia.
“One way in which the KGB and those within the Soviet government decided to fight this movement in Czechoslovakia was through KGB operations. Mr. Andropov [the KGB chairman from 1967 to 1982] sent many KGB spies over here.”
“So, it has a long tradition and history here. That’s why they like it and have many contacts here.”
Mr. Kundra says that the Soviet Union authorities opened a so-called “Rezidentura” at the Russian Embassy – a sort of a secret spy hideout.
“Nowadays, they have these in embassies all around the world, but in the 1960s, if we are talking about Central and Eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia was the first country to have such an HQ established.
“So, it has a long tradition and history here. That’s why they like it and have many contacts here.”
Stereotypes and the financial limitations of Czech counterintelligence also play a role in the popularity of Prague for Russian spies.
“They also think that, as a Slavic nation, Czechs are very similar to Russians and that therefore they completely understand us.
“Furthermore, they can also feel like they are in a safe place, because, despite its good efforts, the Czech counterintelligence service (BIS) is not big enough and its budget is too small, so the Russians know that not all of their agents can be under BIS surveillance.”
This large spy but also diplomatic presence is important, because according to BIS “Russian intelligence and non-intelligence entities can exchange roles and functions, and so any authority (or its subordinate agency) can be used for intelligence operations or for their cover”.
Despite this versatility, the Czech counterintelligence service noted that there were operatives as well as associates of all the Russian intelligence services in the Czech Republic in 2018.
Intelligence officers attempted to cultivate contacts and establish influence around politicians who can impact Russian interests.
BIS says the main threat to the Czech state came from Russia’s so-called hybrid warfare operations, traditionally aimed at NATO and the Czech Republic as a member state.
In the area of protecting the constitutionality and the democratic foundations of the Czech state a whole sub-chapter is dedicated to what BIS calls “Pro-Russian Activists”, individuals “who through their activities wittingly or unwittingly directly assist a foreign power”.
Primarily through “misleading, manipulative or false statements” spread on the “internet, social networks, their own internet video channels or the so-called independent/alternative media” pro-Russian activists divide and polarise society, according to Czech counterintelligence.
In this respect Russia can draw on a segment of the Czech population which sympathises with the policies of Russia’s current government. According to Ondřej Kundra, these are often older men, who grew up during communism and have a natural affinity towards Russia.
The phenomenon of pro-Russian activists has long been a factor identified by experts and even large segments of the general population, but Mr. Kundra points out the public report does contain new information in this respect.
“For the first time it was publicly written in an annual BIS report that some of the Czech pro-Russian supporters are in contact with Russian intelligence services, so some are not just ‘useful idiots’, but individuals who are cooperating with the Russians.”
The Czech Republic was also a scene of Russian subversion activity aimed at the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. According to Czech counterintelligence these sometimes bore features resembling active measures through attempts to create and strengthen social tensions on specific topics, which affect the whole resulting balance of power.
Furthermore, Russian state agencies were active in cyberspace, the BIS report states. Specifically, the FSB was apparently responsible for secretly constructing an ICT infrastructure intended for cyber and information operations on a local and global level.
“[Russian spies] also think that, as a Slavic nation, Czechs are very similar to Russians and that therefore they completely understand us.”
The operation BIS refers to here may be the successful crackdown first reported in March this year by the weekly Respekt, in which a group of Russian spies operated under the cover of two private IT companies, conducting hacking operations from the companies’ computers. These, the magazine’s sources claimed, were transported within the Czech Republic by vehicles under Russian diplomatic cover.
Among other Russian cyber operations that BIS has disclosed is the compromising of private email accounts belonging to members of the Czech Armed Forces, in order to gather compromising material on individual soldiers.
The counterintelligence agency suspects the attack was most likely carried out by the Russian APT28/Sofacy cyberespionage campaign.
Sometimes also referred to as “Fancy Bear”, APT28/Sofacy could be two specific units of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff—known by the acronym GRU—that are called Unit 26165 and Unit 74455. According to American officials, these units had also hacked into the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016.
The BIS annual report also states that an inquiry was carried out in 2018 into a largescale infiltration of the non-classified network of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Mr. Kundra, says that this was a serious hacking case which took place a few years ago.
“I wrote a couple of articles on this, so I have some information that for a couple of months hackers from both China and Russia simultaneously managed to break into the Foreign Ministry’s computer system. They did not cooperate as far as I know but they were both hacking and knew about each other.”
These hackers were not just trying to steal secret information, Mr. Kundra says, but also aimed to get their hands on any material that could be used to blackmail the ministry’s employees. That includes details on love affairs and personal problems.
Both the intensity and scale of Chinese intelligence activities in the Czech Republic grew, according to the annual report.
“By covering all expenses for invited individuals’ trips to China itself or another state, the singled out individual may feel that he “owe[s] China something and may therefore be more forthcoming towards China in the future.”
Chinese intelligence activities, just like those of Russia, “pertained to politics, diplomacy, espionage, economy and information warfare”.
However, BIS states that while the complexity of Chinese activities is comparable to those of Russia, the state’s geographic distance from the Czech Republic and the absence of historical Chinese military engagement in Europe, means that the Czech counterintelligence service is currently primarily concerned with the rise in the activity of Chinese intelligence officers.
These individuals focus on finding and contacting potential “co-operators and agents among the Czech population”.
Meanwhile, Chinese career diplomats resorted to the use of pressure to advance China’s interests.
While Russia shares a long border with NATO, of which the Czech Republic is a member, and has an historical connection to the Central European region, China’s interest in Czechia is less obvious at first glance.
According to Filip Jirouš, an analyst at the Sinopsis project which is focused around researching Chinese activities in the region, the Czech Republic is part of China’s general Belt and Road push to establish more political influence across the world.
However, he does point to one factor which may have aroused increased Chinese interest in Czechia.
“In the report itself there is one small paragraph, which states that a significant element of China’s intelligence activities in the Czech Republic was the continuing efforts to disrupt Czech-Taiwanese political and economic relations.
“This probably has to do with the [now cancelled] Prague-Beijing sister cities agreement issue, wherein Prague has basically decided to sign a sister city agreement with Taipei instead.
“It is definitely one of the reasons why China is more interested in the Czech Republic, because it has started shedding light on Chinese activities, especially those that are controversial or dubious in terms of trying to influence the political landscape here and trying to suppress dissent.
“There are also Tibetan advocates here, and we have also seen several petitions for the Uyghur community.”
BIS also dedicates a significant paragraph on “Chinese activities aimed at the Czech academia, security bodies and state administration”, stating that in 2018 it identified a “growing number of Chinese invitations addressed to Czech citizens for trainings, seminars and excursions”.
“For the first time it was publicly written in an annual BIS report that some Czech pro-Russian supporters are in contact with Russian intelligence services, so some of them are not just ‘useful idiots’, but individuals who are cooperating with the Russians.”
Rather than a tap on the shoulder followed by an offer to emigrate, the CIA method used to brain drain scientists from ‘rogue states’ with controversial nuclear programs such as North Korea and Iran, described by Daniel Golden in the Guardian a couple of years ago, China’s strategy seems to be simply to gain useful future assets.
By covering all expenses for invited individuals’ trips abroad, either to China itself or another state, the singled out individual may feel that he “owe[s] China something”, in the words of the Czech counterintelligence report, and may therefore be more forthcoming towards China in the future.
BIS says the target is also more approachable for cooperation by Chinese intelligence services when abroad.
According to Mr. Jirouš, this practice is encouraged even among junior Communist Party of China (CPC) members.
“In China they call it something like ‘total diplomacy’. That means you use extensive, especially human, resources on cultivating anybody that could be potentially beneficial to the Party.
“Based on the policies of the CPC, especially under Xi Jinping, who is actually stressing this policy, being active in this sort of activity is the task of every single party member.
“That means that even people who are really low in the hierarchy, for example working in businesses, are expected to do this.”
Statements from politicians and public officials on the security situation in the Czech Republic and on the annual report itself started appearing soon after it was published this Tuesday. The Security Information Service’s observation that there are pro-Russian activists among Czech citizens has not gone down well with all of them.
Prague Castle spokesman Jiří Ovčáček tweeted after the report was published that “Marking people with different opinions as disinformers is unacceptable in a free society” and that BIS should “reveal agents of foreign powers”, but “not interfere with freedom of speech”.
Others however, told Czech Radio that they acknowledge the Czech counterintelligence service’s report.
Finance Minister Alena Schillerová of ANO, said her party takes the findings seriously and that she believes they will be discussed at the National Security Council.
Meanwhile, Pirate Party MP Lukáš Kolářík said his party was particularly concerned about the cyber threat to the state:
“We propose that the National Cyber and Information Security Agency be strengthened and given greater funding.”
The Chinese Embassy told the Czech news site Echo24 that the BIS report was only one sided speculation not backed up by evidence.
The Russian Federation has denied Czech counterintelligence claims in the past, most recently that an FSB spying network had been successfully taken down by BIS and the Centre for Combating Organised Crime.
The obvious question is why has the Czech Security Information Service gone into such detail on Russian and Chinese intelligence activities in the country?
“In China they call it ‘total diplomacy’. That means you use extensive, especially human, resources on cultivating anybody that could be potentially beneficial to the Party.”
Mr. Kundra says that it is a new method of greater openness with the public brought in by the current BIS director Michal Koudelka, since he was put in charge in 2016.
A similar attitude has been used by intelligence agencies in the Baltic NATO member states in recent years, says the journalist.
“They use many concrete examples and I guess it helps them succeed more in society, because people are more aware of the threat from Russia.
“That is why sometimes the public provides more concrete information to their counterintelligence agencies and cooperate better. I think it can be the same in the Czech Republic.”
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