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Russia and China expanding espionage activities in the Czech Republic

Prague, Czech Republic – Ever wondered why the Russian Embassy in Prague was so massive? Well, turns out counter-espionage agencies in the Czech Republic have been asking themselves the same question.

The Czech intelligence agency (BIS), who released its annual report on Monday, singled out Moscow and Beijing as the most active and aggressive foreign governments in terms of espionage, intelligence gathering and disinformation tactics. According to the report, Russian and Chinese spies – often operating under diplomatic cover – have significantly stepped up their activities in the country last year and pose a clear threat to some of the countries’ strategic assets.

A massive Russian-backed government hack

The BIS also confirmed that two Russian cyber-espionage groups hacked the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense and members of the Czech Armed Forces over the course of more than one year. The Czech intelligence bureau blamed two Russian-linked espionage groups – known as Turla and APT28 – for an extensive hack of government networks, which allegedly took place during several campaigns in 2016 and 2017.

Czech intelligence officials revealed that “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs electronic, communication system had been compromised at least since the beginning of 2016 when the attackers accessed more than 150 mailboxes of the MFA staff and copied emails, including attachments”. “The attackers focused mostly on mailboxes of top ministry representatives”, accessed ‘in a repeated, long-term and irregular manner”, they stated.

BIS investigators only discovered discrepancies in early 2017 and started their investigation into the hacks. The hackers also got “a list of potential targets in virtually all the important state institutions” and may use that information “for future attacks”.

Turla and APT28 are among the most sophisticated and powerful Russian-linked hacking groups, the latter being the one accused of hacking the Democratic National Committee’s server in 2016 ahead of the U.S. Presidential election. They’re also suspected of being responsible for hacks in several other European states.

Russian and Chinese large-scale espionage in the Czech Republic

More generally, the BIS annual report revealed growing espionage activities from both Russia and China on Czech soil last year. “The intensity of intelligence activities by Chinese spies with a diplomatic cover in the Czech Republic and intelligence activities against Czech targets managed from China has grown remarkably”, BIS officials wrote.

“The size of the Russian diplomatic mission and its high infiltration by people with links to Russian intelligence services increases the risk linked with the indiscretion of Czech citizens, namely politicians and civil servants”, the report highlighted, singling out disinformation websites and targeted investments of strategic Czech companies as some of the main channels of Russian influence in the EU country.

Several months ago, a number of Russian diplomats stationed at the Prague embassy were expelled from the country as retaliation after the Skripal poisoning case in the U.K.

Towards a special investigative committee?

Over the last few years and amid growing tensions between the EU and Moscow, the Czech Republic has been growing increasingly aware of Russia’s spying activities and practices. Most analysts, however, argue that the Czech government is not doing enough to deter Russian intrusions and influence schemes.

Other countries, including Poland, have taken more drastic steps to limit Russia’s influence within its diplomatic corps. Kremlin Watch, a strategic program of the Prague-based European Values think-tank, is one of the leading institutions monitoring Russian activities throughout the country – as well as the rest of Europe – and aims to “expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against Western democracies”.

While the Czech government is due to discuss the report in a special session in the next few days, a group of 40 Czech MP’s yesterday called for establishing a special parliamentary committee for investigating Russian and Chinese influence in the Czech Republic. Welcoming this initiative, Kremlin Watch executive director Jakub Janda argued that “we need to expose the interference of aggressive dictatorship regimes in our democracies”.