The latest annual report of Czech counter-intelligence service BIS has outlined a series of threats to national security in what analysts say is unusually direct, rather undiplomatic language. In particular, BIS points to efforts by Russian and Chinese spies and other actors in terms of spreading disinformation in a bid to sway public opinion, and engaging in economic espionage.
In past reports, BIS has warned of efforts by foreign actors backed by Russian or Chinese capital to influence politicians and regulatory bodies, for example, to award public contracts to non-transparent entities in the energy and ICT (information, communications and technology) sectors. The service has also in the past noted growing influence and intelligence operations by both Russia and China.
But analysts such as Jakub Kalenský, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council specialising in pro-Kremlin disinformation campaigns, say it’s not so much the information in the report but the direct way it is imparted that is noteworthy.
“It’s not so much that they are giving more details but, yes, they are being less diplomatic, more outspoken, more explicit. There’s a difference between saying ‘foreign powers are trying to influence the information space of the Czech Republic’ and saying ‘Russia is conducting a hostile information operation’. The perception of the sentence will be really very different.”
On the economic front, according to the BIS report, there is an increasing amount of hidden Russian capital and interests in Czech private companies, in which the true owners – often former Russian intelligence officers – are represented by Czech “white horses”, meaning frontmen, or their participation masked through complex ownership structures and offshore structures. The aim could be to gain control of key assets or access to sensitive or compromising information. The service also points to growing economic espionage by Chinese actors.
Mr Kalenský says that by naming names, or ‘naming and shaming’, as it were, BIS is sending a message to other state actors who perhaps have not heeded warnings made through non-public channels.
“I think this is really a good trend, because sometimes you hear from the people in the [intelligence] services that the clients – meaning the Czech politicians – are not listening to them enough. Giving more information and being more explicit about the threat will help to generate public pressure. Journalists will be able to ask them, ‘What are you doing about it?’ So, I think it is very much a step in the right direction.”
The BIS report notes that Russian activities “have continuously focused primarily on influence operations and exploitation of Czech sources” in a long-running campaign to influence public opinion and undermine support for the EU and NATO. That said, disinformation sites appearing in the Czech online space are only a tiny part of Russia’s hybrid strategy in this area.
Mr Kalenský, who for several years worked in Brussels for the East StratCom Task Force, the EU’s direct initiative to identify, debunk and counter Russia’s disinformation campaign, says he was surprised that the BIS asserted that Czech students are still being taught a ‘Soviet interpretation of history’, which would signal a truly deep, long-term attempt at influencing opinion.
“Here, it’s really hard to say whether it’s Russian activity working with some ‘useful idiots’ in the Czech Republic or – and this probably would be my guess – that it’s more a legacy of the communist period. But that’s also a sad testimony that after thirty years, we still teach an interpretation of history that was written by a dictatorship that was occupying us.”