From Russia with Love

By Jiri Kominek

Spy scandals involving Russian intelligence successfully penetrating or attempting to penetrate the upper echelons of government in NATO-member states that recently joined the alliance have made headlines on numerous occasions.

In the tiny Baltic state of Estonia, authorities arrested Herman Simm, the former head of the country’s National Security Authority who was arrested in September, 2008, and later tried and convicted in February, 2009 after pleading guilty to charges of passing NATO-related secrets to Russia’s SVR civilian foreign intelligence service.

More recently, news has broken in Poland that the country’s internal security service (ABW) arrested a Russian national at the beginning of March, 2009 for allegedly spying on behalf of the Russian Army’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).

Although Polish authorities managed to keep news of the arrest quiet for nearly a year, in early January the Polish media broke the story and it was learned that the GRU spy was probably a deep-cover mole who reported directly to GRU headquarters in Moscow, rather than being run via the Russian embassy in Warsaw.

Polish media citing local government sources say the agent had been living in Poland for approximately a decade and had been granted permanent resident status. If true, his infiltration would happen to coincide with Poland joining NATO in March, 1999.

In the neighboring Czech Republic, local authorities have been rather unsuccessful in hunting down and exposing Russian spies that have operated as diplomats, or as deep-cover agents. This, despite the fact that according to the Czech security service (BIS), two-thirds of the 200 or so Russian diplomats accredited with the Czech foreign ministry are doing more than issuing visas and enjoying the benefits of duty-free shopping.

August, 2009 brought Czech spy-catchers a change of fortune following the expulsion of two diplomats suspected of stirring up local opposition to the Czech Republic hosting the radar portion of the proposed US-led anti-missile defense shield.

In fact, Czech officials claim they had enough evidence to expel up to five Russians, however they refrained from doing so out of concern that the Kremlin would retaliate by expelling an equal amount of Czech spies operating under diplomatic cover in Moscow, effectively ending any and all Czech intelligence gathering activities on Russian soil.

It appears that the only time the Czechs, notorious for their passive aggression and reticence seem to act against a Russian spy operating on their turf is when that spy fails to recruit a local citizen, gets drunk and physically assaults two policemen in the process.

For illustration purposes let’s look at the case involving former Russian defense attaché to the Czech Republic Alexander Sketin who in 2006 attempted, and failed to recruit a Czech scientist, became frustrated, drank too much, verbally assaulted the scientist, and physically assaulted two policemen called to the scene. Sketin was later declared persona non grata by Czech authorities, and was unceremoniously expelled from the country.

More recent antics of Russian spies operating on Czech soil, however, seem to involve less violence, and more romance.

In mid-December, 2009 the Czech defense ministry announced to the media the departure of three Czech army generals who submitted their resignations due to various inadequacies and incidents occurring within the military for which they felt responsible. One of the three was Major General Josef Proks who was considered by insiders to be one of two top candidates for the next Chief of General Staff of the Army of the Czech Republic.

“After spending 35 years in the army, I think it’s time to try life as a civilian”, Proks told the media.

What Proks, who is married with children, neglected to tell the world concerned a romantic affair he was having with a certain female Czech army Lieutenant-Colonel assigned to General Staff Headquarters. We all have secrets.

It seems the Czech Lt-Col had hers as well. According to well-informed Western diplomatic sources familiar with the Proks case, the Lt-Col had a number of simultaneous lovers, one of which happened to be a GRU officer working out of the Russian embassy in Prague.

Although it is not known when the affair began, what is known is that Proks, as the number two man in the Czech military, he had access to many NATO-related secrets pertaining to the national security of numerous countries since he held the highest-possible security clearance.