August 19, 2009

The Russian news service Interfax announced today that Moscow has expelled two Czech diplomats in an apparent tit-for-tat for yesterday's reported expulsion of two Russian diplomats by the Czech Republic.

A Russian official argued that, "this unfriendly act by the Czech side, which declared two of our diplomats 'persona non grata', could not be left without a response." The Russians did not make this decision because these two Czech diplomats were conducting harmful intelligence work. According to the quoted Russian official, today's expulsion was simply a retaliation. So if this is why the Czechs were expelled, why were the Russians expelled?

According to Ceske Noviny, the Czech Republic had strong reasons for expelling these two particular Russian diplomats. "Nova TV said the alleged agents tried to contact people at the Czech Defence Ministry, showing interest in everything that concerns the military, mainly the planned U.S. missile defence radar installation on Czech soil."

Thus, what superficially appears to be a minor bilateral manner, gains more significance as the details expose characteristics of a far broader campaign targeting NATO security as a whole. The Czech case is not an isolated incident. It is the effectiveness of the Czech intelligence services and the courage of the Czech government which provide open source glimpses into the extent of this intelligence campaign against NATO and its members.

Jiri Schneider, former political director at the Czech Foreign Ministry, helps put this all into context. "[A]fter our joining the EU and NATO, I think we have become a target for acquiring information of various levels of sensitivity concerning the functioning of these institutions and also important elements of the military." How much of a target? A 2007 report by the Czech counter intelligence service revealed that, "out of 60 Russian Federation diplomats based in the Czech Republic, about a half of them work for Russian intelligence services, collecting sensitive information on their host country."

Are all these personnel and resources directed toward any perceived threat from Prague or could they serve some other purpose? Czech Radio reported that:

[T]he BIS also said Russian intelligence might have a more ambitious goal - to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies. The agency's report speculated that Russia's measures were part of a wider campaign aimed at damaging the integrity of the EU and NATO, isolating the United States and renewing control over the lost Soviet security perimeter in Europe.

The revelations from this intelligence report help us to better understand the context of this week's spy cases. They also make us look for connections to similar events in April when NATO expelled Vasily Chizhov (son of Russia's ambassador to the EU) and Viktor Kochukov (a senior official in Moscow's delegation to NATO) for espionage activities. The linkage between these recurring cases was even highlighted by Dimitri Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO, when he argued that these NATO expulsions were a response to the case last December of Herman Simm (chief of Estonia‘s National Security Authority) passing allied secrets to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. Russia retaliated to NATO's action by expelling two Canadian diplomats from NATO's Information Office in Moscow.

The more such cases come to light, the more they support the conclusions of the Czech intelligence report that there is a large scale campaign taking place against the security of NATO. It is not reassuring that last year, the chairman of NATO's intelligence committee was Sandor Laborc, "who spent six years [being trained] at the K.G.B.'s academy in Moscow." To borrow a phrase often used to sugar coat the problems of burden sharing within the alliance, when it comes to the unfolding intelligence problems between Russia and the members of NATO, "much work remains to be done."

Jorge Benitez is the Director of NATOSource, where this essay first appeared. 

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