BIS intelligence head: the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats has boosted security

Michal Koudelka and Petr Fiala

The country’s counterintelligence service BIS traditionally performs quietly and efficiently behind the scenes. But on Monday it was at the centre of media attention due to a rare visit by the prime minister, the first in 24 years.    

Petr Fiala | Photo: René Volfík,  Czech Radio

It is not often that the head of the country’s counterintelligence service BIS appears at a press briefing, much less takes questions from the media, so the press hall at the service’s headquarters in Prague was packed with journalists on Monday.

In an opening statement Prime Minister Fiala thanked the service for its good work.

“The work of the intelligence services has acquired new significance at this exceptionally difficult time for the world, when Russia is not only waging a war against Ukraine, but a war against Europe and all democratic countries.”

Explosion at the ammunition depot of Vrbětice in 2014 | Photo: HZS ČR

The visit by the prime minister coincided with the release of the service’s annual report on the security situation in Czechia. BIS head Michal Koudelka said the tracing of the 2014 Vrbetice blasts to the Russian secret service GRU and the subsequent expulsion of a large number of Russian diplomats had significantly improved the security situation.

“The Vrbetice case was an important milestone for the country security wise. It led the government to expel a large number of diplomats and, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it also closed the Russian consulates in Karlovy Vary and Brno. So the number of Russian agents active undercover on diplomatic ground has been severely reduced and they no longer represent a significant security risk for the country. Of course, there are Russian agents active in other areas, but their task has been made much harder and their access to information has been considerably reduced.”

According to the BIS report one Russian agent from an influential group slipped through the net and continued to expand his activities in Czechia, developing contacts with both Czech politicians and journalists. The report does not say if or when the agent in question was expelled and the BIS head would not reveal further details.

According to the report, Russia’s spy network must now seek alternative ways to conduct espionage operations on Czech territory. It expects them to use the Schengen area and countries where Russia has managed to maintain a large diplomatic and intelligence presence for this purpose.

Photo: Jernej Furman,  Flickr,  CC BY 2.0

The counterintelligence service says it also registered an increase in demand from the Russian military industry, in an obvious effort to circumvent international sanctions.

Although public attention is now focused primarily on the Russian threat, the report highlights the fact that Chinese intelligence activity in Czechia remains high. Chinese agents are operating undercover as diplomats and journalists, the report says, and after the loss of long-established contacts, in the wake of the general elections, they intensified their work within so-called damage control.

The report likewise mentions the disinformation scene, mainly on Facebook, chain emails and disinformation websites, an activity now fueled by people’s fear of war and the looming energy crunch.