Putin’s Central European Spy Base

Why does the Kremlin have so many spies and secret operatives in the Czech Republic?

PRAGUE—The capital of the Czech Republic is indisputably one of the loveliest cities in Europe. Having avoided major bombing or combat in the Second World War, unlike most cities in the region, Prague remains a Baroque jewel, a stunning example of effective and charming urban planning in the late Habsburg Empire. It’s no wonder that tourists flock here from all corners of the globe. As do spies, many of them Russia.

Since the mid-1990s, the Czech Republic has been something of a playground for Russian spies – and most of them are in Prague. It’s not difficult to see why they’re here. As a member of both NATO and the European Union, the country is a tempting target for the Kremlin. Not to mention that Prague is a great place to live and work, there’s a pro-Russian element of the population (even after the Soviet 1968 invasion there inexplicably are still Czech Russophiles), there’s a lot of Russian business going on in the country, and Kremlin operatives gained a solid foothold here just after the Cold War, when it was easy.

Wisely, Prague after 1989 disbanded the Communist-era secret police and created entirely new intelligence structures, free of KGB influence. However, this fresh start meant that it took several years for neophyte Czech spies to learn their craft, and by the time they did in the mid-1990s, the Russians had put down impressive clandestine roots. As a result, Czech counterspies have played catch-up for the last two decades and never have been able to fully cope with the vast extent of Kremlin espionage and subversion in their country.

The numbers tell the tale. The Security Information Service (BIS in Czech) tracks Russian diplomats in the country closely, and there are an awful lot of them – 140 or so at any time. Almost 90 percent of them are at the Russian embassy in Prague, with the rest divided between consulates in Brno (the capital of the Moravia region) and Karlovy Vary (a spa town in western Bohemia that’s coincidentally a top destination for Russian mafiosi).

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