PRAGUE -- Russia is facing a cut in staffing at its diplomatic missions in the Czech Republic so severe that it will likely deal an irreversible -- although not fatal -- blow to Kremlin espionage efforts in the country.
The development comes amid the worst diplomatic row between the two former communist countries in decades, and centers on the Russian Embassy in Prague -- long suspected of being a nest of spies -- and consulates in the cities of Brno and Karlovy Vary.
Prague has given Moscow till the end of May to send home most of its diplomatic staff -- orders that came in response to Czech intelligence findings that two agents of Russia's GRU military intelligence agency were responsible for a deadly explosion at an ammunition depot on Czech soil. The pair of agents are the same accused of a nerve agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 that sent a Russian double agent and his daughter to the hospital, and killed a British woman.
By far the biggest foreign mission in the Czech Republic, the Russian Embassy in Prague has long been suspected by Czech intelligence of serving as a nerve center for Russian spy activity, not only targeting the Czech Republic but also other European locations.
The expulsions -- especially the second round numbering 63 -- have dealt a "powerful blow" to Russian espionage activity not just in the Czech Republic but elsewhere in Europe, explained Aleksandr Morozov, a Russian journalist and researcher with the Boris Nemtsov Academic Center at Charles University in Prague.
"Moscow was not expecting the Czech Republic to carry out a further round of expulsions. The Russian hub in Prague was practically destroyed as a result," Morozov told RFE/RL. "It will take years to create such an intelligence hub under diplomatic cover in any other European country, because it took many years in the Czech Republic as well. This is a big loss for Moscow. Such activity cannot be simply taken and transferred to another country."
Russia is likely to respond to the expulsions with an increase of hostile activity targeting the Czech Republic, security analysts say.
"Even before this incident, Russian intelligence services in Central Europe, including in the Czech Republic, were very active trying to restore lost Russian influence, break Euro-Atlantic ties, and sow doubt over the Czech Republic's foreign policy within the Euro-Atlantic bloc. These activities will continue to escalate given this new impetus, including more cyberattacks by Russian state and nonstate actors," predicted Jan Padourek, a former deputy director of Czech counterintelligence.
Government institutions, the armed forces, and firms in the energy and industrial sectors could be targeted by cyberattacks, the National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NUKIB) warned on April 20, given the "current situation on the domestic and international front."
The row erupted on April 17 when Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis announced the findings of the Czech Security Intelligence Service (BIS) and the National Center for Combating Organized Crime (NCOZ) on the 2014 explosion of the arms depot in Vrbetice, an incident that many Czech politicians and commentators declared an "act of state terrorism."
Czech intelligence concluded the same two GRU agents accused of the March 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury were also behind the Vrbetice blasts in October and December 2014.
Czech intelligence found that the two main suspects in the Salisbury incident -- Russian GRU operatives identified by an open-source investigative organization as Aleksandr Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga --were operating in the Czech Republic and had booked a visit to the Vrbetice ammunition depot under false identities just days before the first explosion.
According to Bellingcat, at least six operatives from the infamous GRU unit 29155 were directly involved in the plot that it said was supervised on the ground by their commander, General Andrei Averyanov, underscoring the importance of the plot to the Kremlin.
Weapons in the depot were being stored for Bulgarian arms trader Emilian Gebrev, who had already survived two poisoning attempts that Bulgarian investigators linked to GRU unit 29155.
Russia has denied the Czech accusations, claiming they were concocted by Washington, and responded to the Czech expulsions by ordering out Czech staff in Moscow and placing the Czech Republic on an official list of "unfriendly" states. The United States is the only other country on the list.
The tit-for-tat expulsions meant Russia would have to withdraw 63 diplomats and other staff from Prague, although the Czechs gave the Russians until the end of May to do so, while Russia gave the Czechs one day to pack and leave.
The Kremlin did not expect the robust reaction from Prague, according to Padourek, triggering outrage in Moscow.
"The unprecedented Czech response to Russian terrorism really surprised Moscow. Such a massive reaction to Russian interference is just unheard of for a state the size of the Czech Republic," Padourek told RFE/RL, adding that Moscow has tools beyond the embassy at its disposal.
"It would be wrong to think that Russian espionage activity in the Czech Republic will end. Russian intelligence services operate not only from diplomatic missions, but often from other sectors as well: using journalists, businessmen, entrepreneurs, students, representatives of international or Russian organizations with offices in the Czech Republic as cover," Padourek explained, adding that the Russian community in the Czech Republic now numbers some 45,000, tripling in the last decade.
The spike in tensions between Moscow and Prague comes with relations on a longer downward trajectory. In 2020 alone, three Prague municipal officials -- including the city's mayor -- were under police protection amid various threats linked to and disputes with Moscow, much of it over the Soviet role in liberating Czechoslovakia during World War II. There was also an alleged poisoning plot involving a Russian diplomat that later proved untrue, and a wave of cyberattacks believed to have originated from Russia that targeted Czech hospitals, the Health Ministry, and other key government targets.
According to self-exiled former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's network in the Czech Republic includes "high-ranking Czech government officials" and is part of a wider network in EU states, including in the "inner circle" of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Prague's 'Little Moscow'
The Russian Embassy, housed in a grand villa, is situated in the leafy Prague district of Bubenec.
Originally owned by Jiri Popper, a Jewish banker whose family fled Czechoslovakia ahead of the Nazis during World War II, the complex was occupied by the Gestapo, and later the Red Army, before Czechoslovak President Edward Benes gifted it to the Soviet Union after the war.
In 2008, Lisbeth Popper, the daughter of Jiri Popper, tried unsuccessfully to get it back, including court action and the filing of two complaints with Russia that Moscow ignored.
Before the recent tit-for-tat expulsions, 122 people were employed at the embassy, 45 of whom had diplomatic status. The consulates in Karlovy Vary and Brno had a total of 18 employees, eight of whom had diplomatic status, according to Czech media reports.
In 2019, BIS director Michal Koudelka said that Moscow, including its embassy in Prague, had financed a network in the Czech Republic established by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) whose aim was to infiltrate targets in the Czech Republic and its allies through attacks on computer network servers.
According to the investigative news magazine Respekt, the operation involved Russian nationals and Russians living in the Czech Republic who had acquired Czech passports and were selling malware through two private firms to ordinary customers.
Including the embassy complex, Russia owns a total of 32 buildings in Prague, most in the vicinity of the embassy in the Prague 6 district. The area has been dubbed by one Czech investigative journal as Mala Moskva, or Little Moscow.
Karlovy Vary, the spa town nestled in the mountains on the western fringes of the Czech Republic, has long been a favorite of Russian tourists and -- as the BIS warned in 1997 -- Russian intelligence services.
The BIS said at the time that the Russian intelligence services had purchased a significant amount of real estate in Karlovy Vary. In 2000, Der Spiegel estimated real estate holdings belonging to Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) to be worth $30 million. The German magazine grimly noted: "They are a few kilometers from Germany's border and inside NATO territory -- what could be better?"
Many not swept up in the diplomatic expulsions will likely remain behind to pursue Kremlin espionage actions, explained Anthony Sam Lichtenstein, a global security analyst and director at Stratfor of RANE.
"Russia often employs intelligence officers with nonofficial cover (NOCs) -- who do not have an official cover story to conceal their true identity and do not have diplomatic immunity -- and these officers will remain in-country or be brought in from elsewhere to pick up some of the work being done by those intelligence officers working under official cover who were expelled," Lichtenstein told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments.
Despite the increased security risks, especially from further cyberattacks, Padourek said the current "resetting" of relations between Moscow and Prague was long overdue.
He mentioned the cutting down of the "oversized Russian diplomatic mission in the Czech Republic," the removal of the Russian state-run company Rosatom from a tender to construct a new nuclear plant in the country, and the halting of efforts to purchase Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine as positives, adding that Russia is far from a strong economic partner, accounting for only some 2 percent of total Czech exports.
"The Czech Republic now has a unique opportunity to continue the course, to openly admit that current relations with Russia are not based on common values and the economic cooperation is completely insignificant, globally speaking," Padourek said. "Given that, it is clear that Czech-Russian relations are by no means exceptional and do not deserve special attention."