The Czech intelligence service (BIS) in its annual report for 2018 published on Nov. 26, warned against threats from Chinese and Russian intelligence trying to weaken Czech institutions, and influence politicians to act in the interests of these foreign powers.
Operations of both intelligence services focus on infiltrating areas of politics, diplomacy, espionage, economy, and information in the Czech Republic. The methods used by China and Russia differ due to geographical and historical factors.
Russia uses unconventional (so-called hybrid) intelligence operations against those who it considers its enemies, which presents a much bigger threat to Czechia than typical intelligence operations, says the report.
Hybrid warfare is a broad term used to describe military strategies employing a combination of activities—like cyberwarfare, disinformation, economic manipulation, diplomatic pressure, use of proxies and insurgencies. It may also involve military actions, according to The Conversation.
“The key Russian goal is to manipulate decision-making processes and individuals responsible for making decisions to induce a counter-party to self-weaken,” says the report.
According to the report, the Russian intelligence agency The Federal Security Service (FSB) secretly built an information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure in the Czech Republic that could be used for FSB operations. This network, however, had been disabled by the Czech intelligence and police forces.
In 2018 a number of email accounts of members of the Czech Army had been compromised due to a cyber-attack. As a result, the attackers obtained access to personally sensitive information about Czech Army members. The BIS stated in the report that the Russian cyberespionage group APT28/Sofacy most likely launched the attack.
A target group for Russian intelligence infiltration is pro-Russian activists. They represent a wide array of political views from left to right and belong to various parties or organizations. While many of them act out of their ideological motives, some are knowingly involved in spreading “various conspiracy theories and pro-Russian propaganda” via different channels, says the report.
In terms of complexity, Chinese intelligence activities in Czechia are comparable to those of Russia, says the report.
However due to lacking a history of military presence in Europe and it’s distant geographical location, China’s intel activities in Czechia focus on “finding and contacting potential collaborators and agents among Czech citizens,” evaluates the 2018 Annual Report of the Security Service.
All top Chinese intelligence agencies operated in the territory of the Czech Republic, including military intelligence, Chinese communist party department of foreign affairs, ministries of state security and public safety, and career diplomats. They all influence Czech academia, security forces, and administration to advocate and force Chinese interests.
One of the methods the Chinese intelligence uses is inviting Czech citizens employed in these fields for training, seminars, and tours, usually to third countries to disguise the real purpose of these invitations. All travel expenses of invitees are covered by the Chinese authorities, thus creating an impression that invitees “owe something“ to China.
It also uses professional social media like LinkedIn to find potential collaborators with access to sensitive information.
Chinese intelligence not only collects information but also engages in subversive activities. According to the report, in 2018, Chinese representatives made efforts to weaken the political and economic relations between Czechia and Taiwan.
Also, some computers within the unclassified network of Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) have been attacked with malicious software during the last several years, and the attacker was able to obtain some of MFA’s documents. The report claims the attack likely came from a Chinese cyber spy group.
Protection of Economic Interests
The report also focuses on the risk of economic infiltration and influence by “entities connected to foreign powers,” especially to authoritarian countries. Authoritarian governments “are by their very nature able to assert their influence on private companies more effectively.” They can use various tools to force these companies to “suppress their own economic interests” and give high priority to “political, military or intelligence objectives of a foreign state.”
Czech President Miloš Zeman proclaimed that the Czech Republic would become “China’s gateway to Europe,” appointing the CEO of a Chinese energy company (CEFC China Energy) as his honorary adviser. The company acquired some Czech businesses like “a part of an airline, a football club, and a brewery,” according to NPR.
CEFC went bankrupt after four years. Its CEO disappeared, a U.S. federal court convicted the head of the company’s nonprofit arm of bribing African heads of state, and “A Chinese state-owned company took over CEFC’s assets in the Czech Republic,” reports NPR. Other Chinese companies continue to operate in Czechia.