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The coronavirus pandemic continues to throttle international travel. But there is one curious exception: the number of diplomats travelling between Russia and several Western countries has increased rather rapidly recently – and they have travelled with all their possessions.
At first, the expulsion of 18 staff members of Russia’s Prague embassy, identified by the Czech government as officers of Russia’s two intelligence services – the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, and the SVR, Moscow’s civilian intelligence outfit – followed almost immediately by the expulsion of 20 Czech diplomats from the country’s embassy in Moscow, may appear to simply fit into a broader pattern. The US had just kicked out 10 Russian diplomats, Poland expelled three more, and some time ago the Bulgarians and the Dutch each expelled two Russian diplomats. In all these cases, countermeasures followed. Additionally, three diplomats from Sweden, Germany and Poland were told to leave Russia due to their presence at protests in support of top opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and reciprocal measures were taken by those countries as well.
The Bohemian Trails
Viewed from afar, the dispute between Prague and Moscow looks to be raking over an old affair. In an act of sabotage, two explosions were set off at the Vrbětice ammunition storage site back in 2014, apparently targeting a shipment which may have been ultimately destined for Ukraine. The Czech police and security services have now linked this action to the GRU, and the Czech government has implemented a diplomatic response, to which the Kremlin responded in a somewhat disproportionate but diplomatically customary manner.
Beyond the immediate diplomatic spat, Russia will pay a broader price. The Czech authorities are almost certain to exclude Rosatom – Russia’s nuclear power supplier – from the security screening process preceding a tender for the expansion of the Dukovany power plant, a key project intended to ease Prague’s reliance on coal power. But this was always at least theoretically on the cards, since several ministries in Prague as well as the country’s intelligence agencies and cyber authority had previously warned against Rosatom’s involvement and, for largely similar security reasons, the China General Nuclear Power Group’s participation in this tender had already been ruled out.
Meanwhile, the timing and circumstances of the government’s announcement and the expulsion of Russia’s spies have shaken the Czech Republic’s political scene. That said, the government, although it has recently lost its majority in parliament, is unlikely to fall. Many in the opposition are aware that a vote of no confidence in the current government would only empower President Miloš Zeman, who has previously indicated that he could allow Prime Minister Andrej Babiš to govern until the general election scheduled for October. With a characteristic penchant for suspense, Zeman, a veteran politician seen by many as close to Russian and Chinese interests, has promised to speak on the current events only over the coming weekend, leading to speculation about what he might say.
Nonetheless, the president’s press secretary has stated that the expulsion of Russian diplomats was coordinated across the top tiers of government with the president included, so the chances are good that the episode will not empower the president to make a surprise move. Beyond this, the position of the Czech counterintelligence service – the BIS – which has hitherto been politically embattled and often subjected to President Zeman’s criticism, is likely to be reinforced as a result of the latest affair.
The story could, therefore, end here. But that does not mean it should.
The Broader Perspective on Russia’s Operations
In an unexpected appearance, Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga resurfaced not exactly as spies from the cold, but from the past. The suspects in the 2018 Salisbury attack against Sergei Skripal had apparently taken another detour in their peculiar Grand Tour of Europe, all courtesy of the GRU, their employer. For these noted admirers of church and cathedral spires, Prague would have been something of a natural destination; the small village of Vrbětice in the Czech Republic‘s hinterland, less so. Yet in Vrbětice they were, and they have been implicated – according to Bellingcat, as part of a larger group – in explosions that caused two fatalities, as well as the evacuation of several populated areas and a showering of explosive munitions over the vicinity that took six years to clear.
This may seem like a ‘retro’ intelligence operation, more fitting of a Second World War plot. Yet it also offers some relevant lessons for the present, as it allows us to take Russia for what it is. It is no longer a formidable enemy of the West – though its powers are not declining as fast as some would desire – but a revisionist state inferior to the US and its allies on most measurable indicators, which resorts to asymmetric means of violence. The Kremlin’s dirty war machine has until now featured explosions, assassinations and all sorts of influence operations, corrupting political institutions and undermining public trust in them through disinformation campaigns that exploit Western vulnerabilities. The Russian embassy in Prague, with a vastly oversized number of staff – a legacy of the Cold War – has long been recognised as one of the bases for Russia’s covert activities in Europe, alongside the recently discovered outpost in the French Alps that served as a similarly pleasant – though admittedly much smaller – base for the GRU unit involved in the Salisbury and Vrbětice attacks.
Following years of reticence in dealing with Russia’s behaviour, the popular opprobrium generated by the latest revelations and the solidarity from abroad present the Czech government with an unprecedented opportunity to close this Russian operational base on Czech territory, and to limit the Russian embassy’s activity to the appropriate diplomatic representation. Indeed, the Czech parliament’s lower chamber issued a declaration to that effect this week. And there is scope to do more: Czech police have already detained several paramilitary group members suspected of organising the recruitment of foreign fighters on behalf of Ukrainian separatists, in cooperation with the GRU.
Pursuing such an approach would benefit the security of all transatlantic allies. It would also be a courageous move since, apart from the immediate counter-expulsions of diplomats, further and severe Russian countermeasures are to be expected, both overt and covert. Therefore, the Czechs would need strong and coordinated support from their NATO and EU allies to deter Russia’s harsher countermeasures, to detect and act against less severe but still damaging measures through greater intelligence and cyber defence support, and to protect Czech interests in Russia where the country’s diplomatic mission is already all but incapacitated.
In short, the Czechs need to be assured that if they challenge the beast and help to dismantle the Kremlin’s dirty war machine for the common good, they will not be hung out to dry.
Ondřej Ditrych is the Director of the Institute of International Relations Prague.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamacek and Prime Minister Andrej Babis at a press conference at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague, Czech Republic, on 17 April 2021. Courtesy of Michaela Rihova/CTK Photo/Alamy Live News