Czech Republic: Spies still come in from the cold

The Glienicke Bridge, near Berlin, where spy exchanges took place during the Cold War (Andreas Levers)
The Glienicke Bridge, near Berlin, where spy exchanges took place during the Cold War (Andreas Levers)
28 August 2009 – Respekt (Prague)

On the 17 August 2009, two members of the Russian embassy in Prague were charged with spying and expelled from the country. The very next day, two Czech diplomats working in Moscow were sent home in retaliation. This episode illustrates the lingering tensions between Russia and ex-satellite countries that have since joined the EU and NATO.

The Czech expulsion of Russia’s two alleged intelligence agents was definitely not a bolt from the blue. It was, rather, the culmination of an undercover duel that has been going strong for 11 months now between the North Atlantic alliance and Russia. The objective was to find a way to break up the tightly-organised international ring of Russian agents gathering sensitive information in NATO member countries. NATO launched its defensive operation last September by arresting Herman Simm, a high-ranking official in Estonia’s interior ministry, a catch that indirectly enabled Czech intelligence to expose two Russian “spies” in Prague.

On this particular morning in September of 2008, Herman Simm, aged 61, emerges from his luxurious domicile, not far from the Estonian capital, and slips into the back of his chauffeured limousine. The limo heads for the Estonian Ministry of the Interior, where he is in charge of coordinating the exchange of top secret information between NATO headquarters and Estonia. But this morning he will never make it to the office. The second he gets out of the car, a special Estonian police squad arrests him smack in the centre of Tallinn: Simm is suspected of spying for Moscow.

It was subsequently established that Simm had met regularly with high-level officers from the SVR (the Russian Federation’s foreign intelligence service), and that in return for considerable sums of money he handed over sensitive information about NATO – particularly about the US plan to put an anti-missile defence system in the Czech Republic and Poland and about NATO’s future defence strategy for the Baltic States in case of Russian attack. All told, no fewer than three thousand documents and other pieces of information were passed on to the Russians.

Vast web of Russian spies

Facing what was bound to be a heavy prison sentence, Simm cut a deal and made a full confession. Not only did he divulge his own undercover activities, he gave the Estonian investigators invaluable information about a vast web of Russian infiltrators operating in various NATO countries. NATO then launched an operation aimed at expelling several Russian agents from its member countries. The latest sensational “sting” was the one on 17 August against a pair of military attachés at the Russian embassy. The two men’s espionage activities, detected by Czech intelligence, were apparently considered so alarming that the decision to throw them out of the country was reached within a matter of minutes, though kept under wraps for several days. “It has been ascertained that Russian agents are becoming more and more active in most NATO member countries. When a request for a diplomatic visa for a person of Russian origin is transferred to us, his name is entered into our database and then in NATO’s to determine whether he has already been implicated in any suspicious activity. Roughly every other name comes up in the databases,” says a Czech diplomat. The two agents had built up an extremely powerful ring of informants – and their expulsion certainly does not spell the elimination of the ring.

Russia takes a keen interest in the Czech Republic because it is a member of the EU and NATO and because part of the American anti-missile shield system [to ward off any would-be Iranian attack] is supposed to be built on Czech soil. The Russians have termed the shield a “hostile” project from the outset. Not so much because they would feel threatened by the Czech Republic, but because they feel the Czech Republic has always been part of their “sphere of influence”. At least that is what Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said last March. Actually, the Russians refuse to admit that the Czech Republic belongs to the Western world and that it is so committed to reinforcing its democratic standards – which cannot but entail, in turn, a weakening of Russian influence.

For several years, the Czech counter-intelligence service (BIS) has been warning against the risks posed by Russia's increasing “influence”. Its latest report says: “The economic sector or industrial groups under the influence of the Russian secret service may be used as a means of exerting political pressure.” Recently, a top-level BIS official told Respekt: “Over the past few years, we have found out that some Czech entrepreneurs known to be receiving suspicious sums of money from Russia have tried several times to take control of telecom companies, information systems and transport infrastructures – rail transport, airports, also airlines.”

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