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Alleged Kremlin Poison Plot Highlights Czechs' Russian Spy Problem

Prague 6 Mayor Ondrej Kolar said he had been told by the authorities that the Russian agent had been dispatched to "liquidate" him.
Prague 6 Mayor Ondrej Kolar said he had been told by the authorities that the Russian agent had been dispatched to "liquidate" him.

A suspected Russian intelligence agent was reported to have flown into the Czech capital with a deadly mission.

The agent was tasked with taking out three local Czech officials, including the mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib, according to the Czech investigative weekly Respekt.

Each of the three had taken or supported steps that angered Moscow, including the removal of a statue of a controversial Soviet general and the renaming of the square in front of the Russian Embassy in Prague after the slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov.

One of the alleged targets, Ondrej Kolar, a district mayor in Prague, was blunt, saying he had been told by Czech authorities that the Russian had been dispatched to "liquidate" him and the two others.

Upon arrival the suspected intelligence agent was driven to the Russian Embassy compound in a leafy residential neighborhood of Prague, according to Respekt, which broke the story on April 26.

Respekt said the Russian national entered the country with a suitcase containing the toxin ricin. That suitcase could have escaped customs inspection as per diplomatic protocol.

There are few other details in the Respekt report that, nevertheless, has sparked outrage in Prague and denials in Moscow, which has been accused of similar plots in the past, including the 2018 poisoning in Britain of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said it was "not acceptable -- if it's true -- for a foreign state to take action against our citizens here."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has dismissed the reports, saying it "looked like a canard."

Russia's 'Spy War'

But Western intelligence experts find the alleged plot possible, especially given the number of Russian spies reported to be operating out of the Czech Republic.

For John Schindler, a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer, the ricin scandal would mark a dangerous escalation of Russian President Vladimir Putin's espionage activities in the West.

"Russian intelligence services feel safe operating very aggressively in Prague, I've gotten their rough treatment there myself, but the ricin thing is crazy, insane even for the Kremlin. Putin's gloves are off now," Schindler told RFE/RL.

In 2006, Putin launched his "spy war" against NATO and the European Union, gradually increasing the number of Kremlin spies operating abroad, Schindler has said.

"Now, cadres of Russian spies in NATO countries are bigger than even in the worst days of the Cold War, and Prague has more than perhaps anywhere else in the West," Schindler wrote in a 2017 article in The Observer.

For years, the Czech counterintelligence service, BIS, has issued report after report warning of the threat posed by Russian spies.

BIS said all Russian intelligence services, including Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), military intelligence (GRU), plus departments of the Federal Security Service (FSB), have been detected operating on Czech territory.

BIS and other security experts all agreed that the Russian Embassy in Prague, with its estimated 140 personnel, is a hive of Russian espionage activity.

"A long-term security problem remains the oversized Russian diplomatic mission in the Czech Republic, which raises the threat of Czech citizens coming into contact with the intelligence service of a foreign power," the BIS said in its latest annual report, issued in November 2019.

"The Russian Embassy remains a key site for many of their activities in Europe," Ladislav Sticha, a BIS spokesman, told RFE/RL in a phone interview.

David Stulik, a senior analyst at the Prague-based European Values Center for Security Policy, said operating under diplomatic cover "greatly facilitates" Russian espionage.

"They are undermining our institutions, gathering information, and making the Czech Republic a de facto base for Russia intelligence services for the Schengen area," Stulik explained, referring to the visa-free, EU travel zone.

Embassy Staff

Following the revelations from the Respekt report, the Czech Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee in condemning the alleged plot also called for action from the government to come up with a plan to reduce the number of declared Russian diplomats in the country.

The last time the Czech Republic expelled any Russian diplomats was in 2018 in the wake of the Skripal nerve-agent poisoning. Prague kicked out three Russian Embassy personnel as part of a coordinated Western response.

With more than 150 Russian diplomats recalled from two dozen states, it was the biggest wave of expulsions since the Cold War. The Russians announced their own expulsions in response.

Later that same year, Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek in November told Czech TV that Prague and Moscow were in talks on reducing the Russian Embassy staff. Petricek said the number should "correspondent to the population and importance of the state."

The Russian Embassy in Prague, however, quickly issued a denial. In a Twitter post at the time, the embassy said there was no "intensive dialogue" with Prague about possibly reducing diplomatic staff. It said not only that such talks "had not occurred," but added "they will not."

Sticha declined to say whether the BIS had recommended to the government to push for a staff reduction, emphasizing that the Czech counterintelligence agency has repeatedly pointed out the large number of Russians with diplomatic status in the country.

"It's not a decision for us. It's a political decision," Sticha said.

Political Courage Lacking?

Jakub Janda, executive director of the European Values Center for Security Policy, said he doubted the political will exists in the Czech Republic to take drastic measures akin to those taken by Britain in the past to rid the country of Soviet or Russian spies.

"In the 1970s, Britain disrupted nearly all the KGB spy networks in the country, expelling almost all diplomatic and intelligence personnel, Janda told in 2018.

"We could expel practically all diplomatic and intelligence personnel in the Czech Republic, which Moscow would reciprocate," Janda said. "In addition, we would break most of the Russian spy networks in the Czech Republic, the main goal of such a move. However, that requires political courage of the government, which today is dependent on Russia through the president and communists."

Czech President Milos Zeman is considered to have warm ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, having questioned the point of sanctioning Russia for its support of a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and Moscow's annexation of Crimea.

Czech fear of reciprocity -- that Russia would shrink the Czech Embassy in Russia if Prague moved against the Russian diplomatic mission in the Czech Republic -- may be putting the brakes on the Czechs taking action, Stulik explained.

"The Czech Republic has its interests in Russia: economic, but also maintaining the graves of Czechoslovak legionnaires," Stulik added, referring to the Czechs and Slovaks who fought in Russia during World War I and in the Russian Civil War on the side of the White Army.

However, Schindler said the alleged ricin plot may serve as a wake-up call for Czech political leaders. "BIS, despite being overwhelmed by the scale of the Russian Intelligence Security threat, understand the stakes and work against it, but Zeman, et al, aren't enthusiastic about pushing back on the Kremlin here," Schindler explained in e-mailed comments.

"The ricin incident is so brazen that, like the novichok attack in the U.K., we can hope for change. Maybe," Schindler said.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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