British journalist, CEE analyst Edward Lucas on Russian spies in Czechia, disinfo, and political polarisation
The British journalist, author and analyst Edward Lucas has been covering central and eastern European affairs since 1986, including as a senior editor at The Economist magazine. Czech Radio reporter Petr Dudek recently interviewed him about a range of issues affecting the region – not least the spectre of Russian covert operations and efforts to polarise populations, in part through spreading disinformation.
We pick up the Edward Lucas interview with Petr Dudek’s question about the extent of Russian espionage in the Czech Republic, following this country’s expulsion of diplomats and purported spies due to evidence that Russian military intelligence agents, from the GRU, were been behind deadly explosions on Czech territory in 2014.
The Czech government earlier this year expelled dozens of Russian diplomats, claiming that Moscow and the GRU were behind the deadly sabotage operation seven years ago. You – and not just you – warned for years that Prague was a ‘nest of Russian spies’. Is the ‘nest’ now finished?
"I think that the decision to expel the Russian spies is great. But it came many years too late, and I’ve been astonished that the Czech Republic, part of a country that suffered so much under communism, and with such excellent counterintelligence services and so very far-sighted and visionary politicians, has not been able to deal with Russian influence operations.
“Whether it’s mysterious events at Prague airport – and I still remember the way a Russian dissident was deported back to Russia under the noses of the Czech authorities with apparently complete impunity by the FSB...
“Whether it’s the behaviour of Russians in the energy sector or the property dealings in Karlovy Vary, or indeed the nest of spies at the Russian embassy, again and again the Czech officials give the right warnings, and the Czech decision-makers at the top have failed the challenge.
“I’m afraid that the Vrbětice explosion, also fatal and spectacular, is probably not the worst of Russian activities in the Czech Republic. There may be many more things going on that we don’t know about. And it really upsets me.
“Although we’re really grateful for the Czech help that we get when it comes to expelling spies in response to outrages in Britain, the Czech Republic cannot afford to be a kind of black hole in terms of Russian influence operations. We need to really systematically ‘clean house’. Not just one nest, but all of them. And to change the furniture, and the doors and windows to make sure that nothing like this happens again.”
What can be done to clarify and prove what the GRU agents, Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, did in Vrbětice, or in Salisbury in 2018? We can hardly expect them to come to Prague or London to face questioning.
“No. Well, that’s the trouble with espionage. Usually the people involved get away, and the best you can do is try to make sure that they don’t come back. What we can do is look for local accomplices – and I’m sure there are people in the Czech Republic and in other countries with Russian espionage or influence operations. And they should be sweating. They should be worried about losing their jobs and maybe going to prison.
“And we do a very bad job of that – in my country as well. We have bankers, lawyers and accountants who are accomplices of Russian oligarchs and kleptocrats, and they get away with it too. So, we’ve all got to do a better job on this and recognise that espionage 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 don’t have to allow the wind and rain to get into your house just as it’s blowing.”
Speaking about Russia and elections, we know that Russian intelligence meddled in the election process in several democratic countries. Is there a model procedure, or tactics, through which Moscow in a targeted country?
“There’s no one model: there are several. But one classic one is what we call ‘hacking and leaking’, where they use intelligence means, usually rather simple ones, to obtain private communications involving politicians and then leak them. And it is embarrassing because politicians, like all of us, say, do and write things in private that they don’t want seen in public.
“So, Hillary Clinton’s emails, which were completely 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 talking over dinner, look bad when they are published in Poland.
“This is a very standard Russian tactic, and we still fall for it – and I’m afraid that we in the media are part of this operation if we let ourselves be used as the channel for getting these communications into the public.
“That’s just one thing. There’s also paying people – what we call ‘Schröderisation’ [after the former chancellor of Germany] – giving lucrative jobs to retired politicians in a way that perhaps influences their decisions when they’re in office; and if not jobs to them, then jobs to their children, wives, mistresses, or godchildren – whatever.
“Money plays a big role in politics in many countries, and Russia knows how to exploit that. And then there’s disinformation, peddled over Facebook and WhatsApp, through email chains and so on, scare stories and hoaxes – stuff that may have a grain of truth but is being spun. So, Russia has a huge arsenal of these techniques – and they’re not afraid to use them.”
If Russia need a politician or a political party to use for their purposes in a foreign country, who are they looking for typically?
“They’re very opportunistic. They use traditional left-wing parties, particularly feeding on their anti-Americanism, and saying that the Americans are trying to start another Cold War. They go for right-wing parties – often even extreme right-wing parties – with messages about migration and conspiracy theories that appeal to those sort of voters.
“But they also go for the middle – particularly pro-business ones, saying let’s forget about all this politics and get on with a nice quiet life and making money. They go for religious parties, saying that Putin – that Russia is the country that believes in the family, faith and traditional values – so, that appeals. So, they are completely eclectic. They’ll go for any party where they can find a way in.”
In 2016, you lectured in Prague on cyber criminality and fake news. Five years later, fake new, or alternative truths, are widespread in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. What are we doing wrong?
“I think if I really knew that answer, I’d 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’s clear that fact-checking doesn’t work. There was a huge emphasis that fact-checking was the answer to fake news, and fact-checking does work very well with voters who are actually interested in truth, but not with voters interested in feelings.
“We’ve tried strengthening the ecosystem by putting money into independent journalism, and there’s more high-quality journalism around, some of it funded by philanthropical or taxpayer money rather having to make money as a business. And that’s good, but again, that’s nice for people like you and me but doesn’t necessarily reach the people who consume the disinformation.
“I think fake news is rather a symptom rather than a problem on its own – a symptom of psychological and social stress that makes people consume this sort of intellectual junk food. We need to go quite deep in our society to work out why people feel so alienated, disengaged and willing to go after this quick hit 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 any solution.”
You live in London buy follow the central European region very closely. Are you worried about public media in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia or the Czech Republic?
“I think that there is a serious problem with political polarisation in some countries. When I watch Polish television, I really worry because sometimes in its treatment of the opposition, it sounds almost like communist television – but with better graphics.
“So, I do worry about that. I think it’s important to try to keep some kind of neutral space, and if you go for this winner takes all attitude to public television, it’s great when you’re in power, and it’s terrifying when you lose. So, I think there’s plenty of room for improvement on that front.
“I also note that the share of the audience is going down all the time, and that people – particularly younger voters – consume their media in different ways. They don’t sit down sit down in front of the television in the evening to watch the news. They getting it on their phones, tablets and elsewhere.
“In the end, I feel that probably media reflect the underlying society more than it shapes it, and that the fundamental problem of political polarisation can’t just be blamed on the media – the media reflect it.”