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Russian Espionage Targeting New NATO Members

The government of Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas (seen here on the right, with President Vaclav Klaus on the left) has already unearthed a Russian spy.
The government of Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas (seen here on the right, with President Vaclav Klaus on the left) has already unearthed a Russian spy.
The three Czech generals make an impressive roster: the head of the president's military office, the country's NATO representative in Europe, and a deputy head of the chief of staff. Last week, a Czech newspaper reported they stepped down after a Russian spy made contact with their offices in the biggest-yet breach of Czech military security.

The agent, a Czech named Robert Rachardzo who worked as a psychologist for the country's prison service, disappeared last year and is presumed to be in Russia. The daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported last week that the military intelligence operative had befriended a female army major who worked at different times as head of staff for the three generals.

It's the latest evidence of what Czech intelligence says is Moscow's drive to step up intelligence activities in former Soviet bloc countries that are now members of the European Union and NATO. But observers in Prague say that more than simply a Cold War hangover, the espionage is part of a general push to increase Russia's presence here in politics and business, especially the energy sector in which Russia leads the world.

No Surprise

Few in the Czech Republic appear surprised by the latest news of spying, which came fresh on the heels of the exposure of 10 Russian sleeper agents in the United States. Karel Randak, the former head of Czech foreign intelligence, says the development confirms what most believe the Russians have been up to in the Czech Republic.

"I'm sure they're doing it everywhere," he says. "In the United States, Great Britain, and South America. I'm not surprised and I don't think the Czech Republic is an exception."

It's not clear what useful information, if any, the Russian agent was able to gather. Local media reported the spy was known to Czech counterintelligence for several years.

But his case reflects a development that's worrying many here. Czech intelligence estimates at least one-third of the Russian diplomatic community in Prague, at least 60 people, is spying here.

The Czech counterintelligence service warns in a recent report that Russian espionage is "aggressive" and escalating, especially in the energy business. Russian intelligence activities are "intensive," the report says, "some of them even hostile to the Czech Republic's interests."

Last year, the government expelled two Russian diplomats suspected of taking part in a large-scale Russian effort to rally public opinion against the construction of a radar base that was to be part of a U.S. missile-defense shield. The incident followed last year's conviction of an Estonian Defense Ministry official for passing Estonian and NATO documents to Moscow.

Hidden Truth

Moscow-based military expert Aleksandr Golts says the Russian government increasingly relies on information gathered through espionage. He says that reflects the mentality of the country's leaders, chief among them Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who's installed many of his former colleagues in top positions in government and business.

"In Vladimir Putin's worldview, nothing that's said in public is true," he says. "The truth is hidden and can be found out only through special means."

Golts says it's no surprise Russian espionage is concentrated in new members of NATO and the European Union. He says former Soviet bloc countries such as the Czech Republic that are now privy to documents from Western international organizations are natural front-line targets for Russian spying.

"There's one simple reason," he says. "They still have ties from the old days. Getting into the Czech Republic or Bulgaria is a lot easier than Britain or Belgium."

Czech journalist Jaroslav Plesl agrees. He's investigated Russian influence in the Czech Republic and says Moscow still considers his country part of a border between the former Soviet Union and the West.

"They need to know what the Czechs are planning and about their strategic cooperation with the West," he says. "They want to know what direction the Czech military and security forces are moving in."

But Plesl adds that "old-fashioned" espionage that relies on intelligence services is only part of how Moscow is expanding its influence in the Czech Republic. He says state-controlled and influenced Russian companies have been busy lobbying for Russian interests.

"They've been very active setting up businesses and making economic ties between their businessmen and Czech businessmen and politicians," Plesl says. "These practices can be considered very modern."

Energy Expansion

Since Putin took power as president a decade ago, the world's largest producer of oil and natural gas has been extending an ever-tighter grip over Europe's energy market by vying for control over the pipeline networks, storage facilities, and utilities that deliver Russian supplies to European consumers.

In the Czech Republic, a Gazprom-controlled company has taken 12 percent of the domestic gas-distribution market. Russia's LUKoil has bought a chain of filling stations and is believed to be seeking control over the country's oil-pipeline network.

Analysts say Russian companies are building their presence by discretely funding political parties and operating through shell companies nominally owned and operated by Czechs but actually controlled by Moscow. They say the firms are hiding their identities because unlike Western companies, Russian businesses do the bidding of a government seeking to expand its power abroad though control of energy assets.

More than just oil and gas, the Kremlin is also playing for an industry that's been promoted as central to securing the Czech Republic's energy independence: nuclear power. A Russian state-controlled company is bidding to build two nuclear power reactors in a tender this year for what would be the biggest nuclear energy deal in history, and many believe it will win.

Still, the election of a new government earlier this year may set back the rising tide of Russian influence in the Czech Republic. Journalist Plesl says the fact that the usually secretive Czech intelligence released information last week about the latest known Russian agent may signal that center-right Prime Minister Petr Necas -- a former deputy defense minister -- may be "more serious" about combating Moscow's influence than his predecessors.

"As long as Necas is in power," he says, "we'll be hearing more and more about the Russian influence in the Czech Republic." That may mean more revelations about Russian spies to come.

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