British journalist, CEE analyst Edward Lucas on Russian spies in Czechia, disinformation and political polarization

We pick up Edward Lucas’ interview with Petr Dudek’s question about the extent of Russian espionage in the Czech Republic, following that country’s expulsion of diplomats and suspected spies due to evidence that agents of the Russian military intelligence, of the GRU, were at the origin of deadly explosions on Czech territory in 2014.

Earlier this year, the Czech government expelled dozens of Russian diplomats, saying Moscow and the GRU were behind the deadly sabotage operation seven years ago. You – and not only you – warned for years that Prague was a “nest of Russian spies”. Is the “nest” now complete?

“I think the decision to expel the Russian spies is an excellent one. But it came many years too late, and I was amazed that the Czech Republic, which is part of a country that suffered so much under communism , and with such excellent counter-intelligence services and therefore very far-sighted and visionary politicians, has not been able to deal with Russian influence operations.

“Whether it was mysterious events at Prague airport – and I still remember how a Russian dissident was deported to Russia under the nose of the Czech authorities with seemingly total impunity by the FSB …

Explosion at Vrbětice ammunition depot in 2014 |  Photo: Czech Television

“Whether it’s the behavior of Russians in the energy sector or real estate transactions in Karlovy Vary, or the nest of spies in the Russian Embassy, ​​again and again Czech officials give the right warnings , and the Czech decision-makers at the top failed the challenge.

“I fear that the Vrbětice explosion, equally deadly and spectacular, is probably not the worst Russian activity in the Czech Republic. There may be many other things going on that we don’t know about. And that really pisses me off.

“While we are truly grateful for the Czech help we receive when it comes to expelling spies in response to the attacks in Britain, the Czech Republic cannot afford to be some kind of hole. black in terms of Russian influence operations. We really need to systematically “clean the house”. Not just one nest, but all of them. And change furniture, doors and windows to make sure nothing like reproduce.

What can be done to clarify and prove what GRU agents Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin did in Vrbětice, or in Salisbury in 2018? They can hardly be expected to come to Prague or London to be interrogated.

“No. Well, that’s the problem with spying. Usually the people involved leave, and the best you can do is try to make sure they don’t come back. What we All we can do is look for local accomplices – and I’m sure there are people in the Czech Republic and other countries who are carrying out Russian espionage or influence operations, and they should sweat it. should fear losing their jobs and possibly going to jail.

Russian Embassy in Prague |  Photo: Radio Prague International

“And we are doing a very bad job in this regard – in my country as well. We have bankers, lawyers and accountants who are complicit with Russian oligarchs and kleptocrats, and they get away with it too. So we all need to do a better job of this and recognize that spying is like the weather – you have to deal with it, but there are also things you can do to make yourself safe and comfortable. ; you don’t have to let the wind and rain enter your home just when it blows.

Speaking of Russia and the elections, we know that the Russian secret services have interfered in the electoral process in several democratic countries. Is there a pattern of procedure, or tactic, by which Moscow in a targeted country?

“There is not one model: there are several. But a classic is what we call “hacking and leaking”, where they use intelligence means, usually quite simple, to obtain private communications involving politicians and then leak them. And it’s embarrassing because politicians, like all of us, say, do, and write things in private that they don’t want to see in public.

“So Hillary Clinton’s emails, which were perfectly normal for a political campaign, look back when they’re in the New York Times; [Polish MEP] Radek Sikorski’s conversations over dinner – although, again, quite normal, for two friends chatting over dinner, look bad when published in Poland.

“It’s a very common Russian tactic, and we always fall for it – and I’m afraid we in the media will be part of this operation if we allow ourselves to be used as a channel to get these communications out to the public.

Photo: myself, Pixabay, CC0

“It’s just one thing. There are also paying people – what we call “Schröderisation” [after the former chancellor of Germany] – giving lucrative jobs to retired politicians in a way that may influence their decisions when in office; and if not jobs for them, then jobs for their children, wives, mistresses or godchildren – it doesn’t matter.

“Money plays a big role in the politics of many countries, and Russia knows how to exploit it. And then there is misinformation, peddled on Facebook and WhatsApp, through chain letters, etc., scare stories and hoaxes – things that may have a grain of truth but are doctored. Russia therefore has a huge arsenal of these techniques – and it is not afraid to use them.

If Russia needs a politician or political party to use for its purposes in a foreign country, who does it usually look for?

“They are very opportunistic. They use traditional left-wing parties, feeding off their anti-Americanism in particular, and say that the Americans are trying to start another Cold War. They opt for right-wing parties – often even far-right parties – with messages about migration and conspiracy theories that appeal to this type of voter.

“But they are also opting for the middle – especially those who are pro-business, saying let’s forget about all this politics and continue to live a nice quiet life and earn money. They go to religious holidays, saying that Putin – that Russia is the country that believes in family, faith and traditional values ​​– so it pleases. They are therefore completely eclectic. They will go to any party they can find a way into.

In 2016, you gave a conference in Prague on cybercrime and fake news. Five years later, fake news, or alternative truths, are spreading in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. What are we doing wrong?

“I think if I really knew that answer I would write a book about it, but I don’t. I see the problem getting worse and I think our countermeasures so far have been rather unsuccessful. It is clear that fact-checking does not work. There was a huge emphasis on fact-checking being the answer to fake news, and fact-checking works great with voters who are actually interested in truth, but not with voters interested in sentiment.

Vladimir Putin, Alexander Lukashenko |  Photo:, public domain

“We have tried to strengthen the ecosystem by investing money in independent journalism, and there is more high-quality journalism, some of which is funded by philanthropic or taxpayer money rather than earning money. money as a business. And that’s fine, but again, that’s fine for people like you and me, but it doesn’t necessarily reach people who consume misinformation.

“I think fake news is more of a symptom than a problem in itself – a symptom of psychological and social stress that drives people to consume this type of intellectual junk food. We have to go far enough in our society to understand why people feel so alienated, disengaged and ready to pursue this quick shot of a conspiracy theory that seems to explain the whole world. But it’s going to be a problem for many years to come – I don’t see a solution.

You live in London and follow the Central European region very closely. Are you worried about public media in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia or the Czech Republic?

“I think there is a serious problem of political polarization in some countries. When I watch Polish TV, I really worry because sometimes, in its treatment of the opposition, it almost looks like communist TV – but with better graphics.

“So I’m worried about that. I think it’s important to try to keep some sort of neutral space, and if you go for this winner that takes the whole attitude of public television, that’s great when you’re in power, and it’s terrifying when you lose. So I think there’s a lot of room for improvement on that front.

“I also see that audience share keeps dropping, and people – especially younger voters – are consuming their media in different ways. They don’t sit in front of the television at night to watch the news. They get it on their phones, tablets and elsewhere.

“At the end of the day, I think the media probably reflects the underlying society more than it shapes it, and the fundamental problem of political polarization cannot be blamed solely on the media – the media reflects it.”