Former military intelligence chief on expulsion of 18 Russian spies: The biggest problem are the civilian undercover agents we do not know about

Andor Šándor

The revelation that the Russian secret service was involved in the deadly 2014 munitions explosions in Vrbětice, Moravia, has shocked and angered the country, raising numerous security issues and questions as to what actually happened and what could possibly have motivated Russia to undertake such a huge and risky operation on the territory of an EU and NATO member state. I spoke to former military intelligence chief Andor Šandor about the security implications and began by asking if Russia was becoming increasingly bold in its operations abroad.  

“I would say that what we are talking about now was something that had not been planned. Vrbětice by itself did not pose any threat to Russian security. In this respect, I believe the official version  - that the blast was supposed to occur during the transport of the weapons. But if it happened by mistake, which we don’t know, that does not necessarily lessen the importance of the blast. The intention might have been different, but the result was outrageous. I would agree that there was a huge operation on our territory. The Russians are getting increasingly hostile. If you look at the fact that they consider NATO as their biggest enemy, then it is no surprise that they tried to undermine NATO. They are afraid of the Americans in particular. And the Americans play the biggest role in NATO, as you know. Since the Russians are afraid of NATO and consider it to be their biggest enemy, they try to undermine the cohesion of NATO. And they choose the countries that are not perceived to be the solid pillars of NATO and the European Union. Countries where they have friends, countries where there are grievances against NATO and the EU, and where there are people who will help them. The Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic are good targets for their hostile operations that try to undermine the cohesion of NATO. You can’t imagine the Russians doing that in Denmark or the Netherlands, as those are solid NATO members showing no signals that they would like to leave NATO or undermine the importance of NATO for their national security.”

You have already partly addressed this, that the Czech Republic has now expelled 18 diplomats - or 18 Russian agents. But how big is the real spy network of civilians and people helping them in this country?

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

“Our prime minister said yesterday that we have gotten rid of the Russian spies on our territory, and I dare to disagree. To me, what is more threatening are the people about whom we do not know that they belong to Russian security or intelligence networks. We are talking about Russians who work here undercover as journalists, scientists, businessmen. These people are not under such tough surveillance as those who are known to be spies from the beginning of their time at the embassy. If you look at the military department at the embassy, everyone knows that they belong to GRU. As far as the SVR is concerned, they work under diplomatic cover. But when our country’s intelligence services work properly, they find out sooner rather than later that they belong to SVR. So we know that these people belong to the Russian spy network. They are officers of either SVR or GRU. But the biggest problem, for me, are those about whom we do not know anything. The problem is that the counter-intelligence services and the police don’t have the capacity to look at every - not only - Russian citizen. They also have to handle other things besides counterintelligence, such as crime.

So this is definitely a problem. And we should not be complacent and tell each other that we are fine and that the situation is perfect because we got rid of the 18 Russian agents. That’s not the case.”

In view of what you have said, does the Czech Republic underestimate the security threat that Russia presents? Even in considering it for the expansion of the Dukovany nuclear power plant, for instance.

Dukovany nuclear power plant,  photo: IAEA Imagebank,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“I have been commenting on the annual reports of the military intelligence and counter intelligence services for about 17 years. Every year I say that what the Russian spies under diplomatic cover do in this country is not acceptable. And nobody does anything about it. And it’s not only me. It’s obviously also the military intelligence and counterintelligence that says the same thing in private discussions and conferences with the ministers. The worrying thing is that both the prime minister and the minister of interior knew for some time about the results of the Vrbětice investigation. At the same time, the minister of interior planned his trip to Moscow, and there was a plan to send the Russians the security vetting process for their participation in Dukovany. That is really worrying. It tells me that the threat and the results of the investigation were underestimated. They knew what happened. Then, all of a sudden, there was a huge change, and we had the prime minister and the minister of interior and foreign affairs in one person saying what we heard on Saturday evening.”

What are the lessons to be learned from this incident for the country’s intelligence services and politicians?

Protest at the Russian Embassy in Prague | Photo: Kateřina Ayzpurvit,  Radio Prague International

“I would suggest one lesson. To improve the financing and equipment of the intelligence services, so that we can cover more problems related to foreign hostile activities done by spy networks on our territory. But let us be realistic. There will always be a huge grey zone in which criminals and spies will operate without being noticed by the security services. The same is true in the United Kingdom and Germany. If we wanted to have a perfect security world, we would have to have one policeman or member of the security services for every citizen. And that is not a world in which we would like to live.”

Still, should security not be tightened around sensitive sites in the future? Because security at the Vrbětice site was woefully inadequate. Apparently, there were holes in the fence, in some places  there was no fence, and there was just one security guard.

Photo: Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“It is amazing and disturbing how security was neglected there. In this country, we have six army ammunition dumps that are perfectly protected, with all sorts of security measures in place. This ammunition depo in Vrbětice, which anyway belongs to the Ministry of Defence and is run by the military technical office,  was left completely unprotected. The most striking thing about that is that the same material was stored in Vrbětice as in the army dumps -the same material – ammunition, rockets, or whatever. So it’s unbelievable how there can be such a double standard at the Ministry of Defence. As far as the army depots are concerned, they are perfectly protected. But depots in which the ammunition of private companies is stored have a poor security standard. Something should be done immediately to improve it, because any repeat of what happened in Vrbětice could have serious consequences for people living in the vicinity.”

Now, we already said the Czech Republic has expelled 18 diplomats from this country. Russia is expelling 20 in retaliation. However, we have 60 diplomatic staff in Russia, while Russia has 135 in this country. Should the Czech Republic use this chance to reduce the disproportionately high number of embassy staff in the Czech Republic? Has it gone so far that the Czech Republic is a base for Russian spy activities and operations in this part of the world?

Czech Embassy in Moscow | Photo: Czech Foreign Ministry

“That should have been done when the Soviet troops were leaving the country at the beginning of the 1990s. We should have discussed the downsizing of the embassy with the Russian authorities because there was no need for it to be as large as it was during the Soviet era. We did not do that, and we are now seeing the consequences of that. The minister of interior, who is now, at the same time the minister of foreign affairs, wants to downsize the Russian embassy. We have tried to do that many times in the past. But the Russians always answered, ‘Make your embassy as big as you want in Moscow’. So they did not want to downsize. I don’t know if we should do it by closing the Russian embassy and sending the Russian ambassador back to Moscow, as is now being considered by the government. In that case, our embassy will be closed, and then, sometime in the future, we may start to discuss downsizing or the proportional representation of both countries. But I am rather pessimistic and personally not in favour of steps such as expelling the ambassador. That would in practice mean that there would be no relationship between Russia and the Czech Republic at all. I am not so sure if that would be a good thing.”