Friday, 17 November 2017

The great espionage

By Erik Tabery, Ondřej Kundra | Respekt |
15 September 2009

The deportation of two Russian spies isn’t a one-shot deal dropped out of the blue. It was the culmination of an 11-month NATO battle to break up Russia’s international and well-organized network of agents collecting information in member states. NATO’s defensive operation began in September of last year with the arrest of a high-ranking official of the Estonian Interior Ministry, Herman Simm. He was the one to indirectly steer the local secret services in the direction of the two spies at Prague’s Russian embassy.

That September morning began as usual for Simm, 61. He got into a state limousine in front his residence not far from the Estonian capital and headed to the Justice Ministry’s headquarters, where he worked as the co-ordinator of the exchange of super-secret information and data between NATO’s headquarters and Estonia. But he never arrived at his office that day. As he got out of his car in Tallinn's centre, a special unit of the Estonian police arrested him on suspicion of spying for Moscow. The police started tracing Simm’s steps after they’d probed the source of his suspiciously extensive property (a giant house and luxurious cars).

The detectives found that Simm wouldn’t have been able to save up for this wealth, and since he couldn’t comprehensibly explain how he came upon it, the investigators resorted to wiretapping and espionage. And this led to an unexpected discovery. The police found that Simm was meeting with high-ranking officers of the Russian foreign intelligence service and, for high compensation paid in dollars, he was providing them with NATO’s sensitive information—about the planned anti-missile system in the Czech Republic and Poland and NATO’s draft strategy to protect the Baltic states against Russian aggression (altogether, 3,000 documents and details were exchanged). Due to the long-term suspicion that Simm was leaking important data, NATO co-operated with Estonia from the start. The key evidence came from Portugal’s secret services, which noted a meeting between Simm and a representative of the Russian intelligence service. Russians recruited Simm during his summer vacation in Tunisia in 1995. As the former head of the Estonian police, Simm had access to exclusive security data that Moscow desired. Russian interest further intensified once Simm assumed a high post at the Justice Ministry, where he was in charge of the exchange of information with NATO. Simm would always hand details over to his two superiors, Valeri Zentsov and Sergey Yakovlev, whom he met with every three months in a total of 15 different countries.

To trim the harsh penalty he was facing in Estonia for espionage, Simm began co-operating with the investigators soon after his arrest. His charge was eased, mainly owing not to his confession but to his uncovering an extensive network of Russian spies in a number of NATO states. The organisation's subsequent operation led to the expulsion of several agents from these locations. Its most recent visible move was the deportation of two spies stationed at the Russian embassy in Prague.

'We know about them'
According to available sources, both deported men belong to the Russian intelligence service and worked at the local embassy as deputy military attaches. Their expulsion was decided on in April of last year by then Foreign Affairs Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and his Defence Ministry counterpart, Vlasta Parkanová. The information that the secret service presented to them about the two men was so serious that the verdict was apparent within a couple of minutes. For strategic purposes, however, the deportation was postponed until after the EU-Russia summit that took place at the end of May. “We didn’t want to endanger the course of the meeting with the expulsion,” Schwarzenberg said. In the end, Jan Kohout did the banishing.

Although Mirek Topolánek’s administration publicly expressed its distaste for Russia, it made an effort to be friendly toward Moscow. Hence, it informed the embassy in advance of its decision to expel the two Russian diplomats. When, on the morning of 24 May, the Russian ambassador to the Czech Republic, Alexey Fedotov, was to visit Kohout’s office, ministers gathered before the meeting to thoroughly evaluate all of the arguments so that nothing that might potentially offend him would be said. It worked out well. Fedotov received the information peacefully, immediately agreeing to the Czech demands: One of the military attaches would have to leave the country and the second one was advised not to return from his vacation.

The key issues, of course, concern the spies’ exact activities on Czech soil, the type of information they were handing over to the Russian headquarters and, also, whether and how their activities compromised allies' security. “The reason for their expulsion is secret and can’t be made public,” Parkanová said.

Privileged information
Schwarzenberg is equally reserved. “It concerned their activities that clashed with the interests of the Czech Republic and our NATO allies: It was mutually interlaced,” he said very generally. Current high-ranking officials at ministries as well as secret services tell the same stories.

The politicians’ excessive demureness isn’t unusual, though. Nowhere in the world is information about the expulsion of spy diplomats disclosed. "Let’s put it this way: Most NATO member states are noticing an exceptional rise in interest from Russian agents," a source at the Foreign Affairs Ministry said. "If we receive a visa application from someone who’s Russian, we run his name through our and then NATO’s database first, to see whether he’s been linked to suspicious activity in the past. It’s fair to say that every second person is on a list.”

All one can find out about the deported spies is that they managed to create an unusually strong network of informants. These expulsions won’t break the network up. "At most, we’re telling the Russians that we know about them. And now they’ll ponder for a while what we know that they know,” the previously cited source from the Foreign Affairs Ministry added. The interest in the Czech Republic stems from its membership in the EU and NATO and, additionally, the planned US radar base on its soil. From the beginning, Russia has labelled this project as "hostile”. It’s not that Russia feels threatened, but that it still considers the Czech Republic as a state belonging to its "sphere of influence”, as Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov stated in March. Therefore, it refuses to come to terms with the Czech Republic’s deeper sinking into different circles of influence, which would lead to a strengthening of democratic standards and, in consequence, the weakening of Russia’s control.

Speculation and no comments
For years, the local intelligence services have repeatedly and loudly pointed to the risks associated with a growing Russian influence. "Economics or entrepreneurial groups controlled by Russia’s intelligence services can be used as instruments of political pressure,” the latest report from the Security Information Service (BIS) states. The chapter dedicated to Russian spies adds up to exactly 57 pages, half of which comprise quotes (or rephrased passages) from foreign newspapers, coloured in by the BIS’s own analyses: The number of official Russian spies in the country grew by 50 year on year, and, thanks to their contacts in politics, the civic sphere and the media, they influence the course of the country. The BIS’s last three annual reports essentially said the same.

"I can’t comment on more than what we publish in the reports,” BIS spokesman Jan Šubrt said in response to a question on whether the intelligence service has progressed in its analysis of the Russia-related risks and what those involve. The representatives of other intelligence agencies and the military secret service are repeating the same empty comments. Most informal interviews with intelligence services, however, suggest that the Czech Republic truly lacks quality information from inside Russia about its goals and spies’ activities. The services don’t know Russia’s exact aims nor its actual influence on the Czech economy or politics.

"We can only speculate,” a key BIS representative told Respekt a while back on the subject of the risks posed by Russia and its spies on Czech soil. "In recent years, we’ve noticed a number of entrepreneurial subjects with proven links to murky Russian funding attempting to take over telecommunications, information systems and transit infrastructure, from railways to airports and airlines. But we don’t know the extent of support from Russian intelligence services.” Members of the Chamber of Deputies’ Security Committee understand it no better. "I only have general information,” vice-chairman Antonín Seďa said, speaking for the committee in response to a question on Russia-related risks. "I repeatedly demanded better data from secret services but never received it.”

The reason isn’t always reluctance on the part of the agencies or the complete lack of information. Diplomats and agents don’t want to disclose important materials to MPs because they fear the data will leak. Auditing bodies, for instance, comprise Communists who have often studied in Russia or have good contacts there. Concerns about information leaks are therefore justified.

Unheard of
One thing is sure: The lack of information from inside Russia and about it is weakening us twice as much today. Not only can we not map the country’s intentions, but we are also allowing people who we know are provably engaging in espionage to reside on our soil.

When the former ministers Schwarzenberg and Parkanová were considering the expulsion of the two Russian spies, they allegedly also had on the table evidence entitling them to deport another two or three men. To do so, however, would turn out problematic. Given that every nation always responds to expulsions with banishments of like proportions, the Czech Republic faced losing all of its informants stationed in Russia. That is, Prague has about five spooks at the embassy in Moscow while there are at least 100 Russian agents in the Czech Republic. (Prague is unique in the sense that, according to experts, it hosts the head of these operatives, Ambassador Fedotov.) If the Russians proceeded to deport all five of our spies, unlike them, we’d have difficulties replacing them swiftly.

The local intelligence services and the military don’t have enough resources to train new agents, and, meanwhile, with a drop in demand for learning Russian, the organisations are finding it hard to recruit new applicants for the job.

The Russians are fully aware of this. "It’s another Czech provocation,” Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov said of the expulsion. Nonetheless, he refused to provide examples of past “provocations” and, along with the bureau, kept silent concerning questions. “The expulsion proceeded smoothly, and no one talked about it for three months," the previously cited source at the Czech Foreign Affairs Ministry said. "Moscow was angered that it leaked into the public sphere. We tried to figure out who divulged it, not dismissing that the Russians themselves leaked it first to prove our untrustworthiness or to attempt to destabilise relations.” According to Czech diplomats, with “other provocations”, Lavrov had in mind the planned US radar base in Brdy.

The agents’ expulsion is a key step that, nonetheless, doesn’t solve anything. Interest in the Czech Republic will inevitably rise, according to the Czech foreign affairs minister, and none of the diplomats and ministers have specified what this means for us or how the government will deal with it.