Report

As Putin Seeks to Reinvent History, Russia-Czech Relations Hit a New Low

Three Prague officials are under police protection following reports of a poison plot.

Workers load a statue of the controversial Soviet army marshal Ivan Konev onto a truck after it was removed from a Prague park on April 3.
Workers load a statue of the controversial Soviet army marshal Ivan Konev onto a truck after it was removed from a Prague park on April 3. Michal Cizek/AFP via Getty Images

A decision by officials in Prague to remove a statue of a Soviet army marshal from a local park last fall has evolved into a diplomatic dust-up that has only escalated since the sculpture was finally taken down in April, pushing tensions between the Czech Republic and Russia to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. 

The spat took a dark turn this week as Ondrej Kolar, the mayor of an affluent district in Prague, confirmed that he has been placed under police protection after becoming the target of a Russian assassination plot. Over the weekend, an investigative reporter with the Czech magazine Respekt quoted unnamed security sources as saying that a Russian man traveling on a diplomatic passport flew into Prague three weeks ago carrying the deadly toxin ricin. From there he was picked up and taken to the Russian Embassy. The Russian Embassy in Prague has strongly denied the allegations. 

News of the plot came as Moscow is also suspected of being behind a recent wave of cybersecurity attacks on Czech hospitals battling the coronavirus, suggesting that the pandemic has not dimmed the Kremlin’s desire to interfere in other countries and seek vengeance against those who cross it. 

The dispute over the statue of Red Army Marshal Ivan Konev cuts to the heart of ongoing efforts by Central and Eastern European countries to reevaluate their history since the fall of the Berlin Wall, said Jiri Pehe, the director of New York University’s center in Prague. “The Czech Republic is just like some other East European countries. Thirty years after the fall of communism, it is going through a certain reinterpretation of certain events,” he said.

The new tensions also reflect Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continuing efforts to glorify Russia’s role in World War II to bolster support for his own aggressive foreign policy while simultaneously airbrushing the authoritarian excesses of Soviet rule. 

Three Czech officials have now confirmed that they have been placed under police protection in recent weeks, including Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib, who backed efforts to rename the square in front of the Russian Embassy in Prague after the slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and Pavel Novotny, another Prague district mayor. Speaking to the Russian radio station Echo of Moscow on Monday, Hrib confirmed that he had been under police protection for several weeks but declined to comment on the nature of the threat against him. 

Russians consider Konev to be a war hero, one widely credited with liberating much of Czechoslovakia at the end of World War II. For Czechs, his legacy is more complicated, as the Red Army liberators would later become their oppressors. 

Russian patriotism about the decisive role played by the Soviet Union in World War II runs deep, but critics have accused Putin of co-opting this for political gain and to boost his nationalist credentials. The Russian leader is trying to “exploit genuine national pride for his own short-term propaganda purposes,” said the Russian democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is the chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom. Kara-Murza has been poisoned twice, first in 2015 and then in 2017, and suffered multiple organ failure both times.

After the statue of Konev was taken down on April 3, Russia’s Investigative Committee, which handles major cases, said it had opened an investigation into alleged “defiling of symbols of Russia’s military glory.” Two days after the statue was removed, the Czech Embassy in Moscow was attacked by a group of masked individuals who threw smoke bombs into the embassy compound and hung a sign on the fence that said “Stop Fascism.”

“The official Russian narrative is that if you are taking down a Konev statue, then you must be a fascist,” said Jakub Janda, the executive director of the Prague-based think tank European Values Center for Security Policy. 

More than once, efforts to remove statues of Soviet soldiers have sparked fierce disputes between Russia and its former satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe. “Russia is a country of symbols,” said Kara-Murza, noting that one of Putin’s first steps as president was to reinstate the use of the Soviet national anthem. “In the Putin regime, symbols were very quickly followed by substance.” 

In 2007, after the Estonian government decided to move a statue of a Red Army soldier from the center of the capital, Tallinn, the country was hit by a devastating cyberattack that took media outlets, government websites, and banks offline. The attack, later attributed to Moscow, is regarded to be the first example of Russia’s use of cyberattacks as a tool of hybrid warfare—tactics that were later used against Georgia, Ukraine, and the United States. 

This month, several Czech hospitals reported attempted attacks on their computer systems, which were successfully blocked. Prague airport authorities also reported that it had thwarted an attempt to infiltrate its website. The Czech National Cyber and Information Security Agency said the attacks were the work of a “serious and advanced adversary” but did not offer further details. Czech internet security experts told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that they suspected Russia was behind the attacks. In a briefing on April 23, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described the allegations as “ungrounded” and part of an “anti-Russian campaign devoid of any facts.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that there would be “stark consequences” for the perpetrators of the attacks. Asked about the attempted hacks, a spokesperson for the Czech Foreign Ministry said investigations were still ongoing. 

Asked about the alleged assassination plots against Prague officials, the Czech Foreign Ministry spokesperson confirmed to Foreign Policy that a Russian diplomat returned to Prague a few weeks ago following a business trip and was collected at the airport by his colleagues. The spokesperson declined to comment on reports that the man was carrying poison and referred further questions to the Czech intelligence services. Foreign Policy reached out to the Czech domestic intelligence agency BIS for comment. 

Relative to the size of the Czech Republic, Russia has long maintained a large diplomatic staff in its Prague embassy, prompting speculation that it may be used as a base of intelligence activity in the Czech Republic and other European countries. “Everyone knows at least half the staff are not diplomats, and god knows what they’re doing,” said Pehe, who served as an advisor to former Czech President Vaclav Havel.

In a 2015 report, BIS noted that the Russian intelligence services were the most active in the country but that many Russian operatives had not been declared to the Czech authorities. “Such clandestine behavior concealing the affiliation to an intelligence services clearly signals activities threatening the security and other interests of the Czech Republic,” the report said. 

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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