The fuss over Ukraine's expulsion of Czech diplomats appears to be part of a foreign-controlled special operation against Ukraine
In the past week, Ukraine's political life was marked by an absolutely unexpected spy scandal. On May 13, the press service of the Foreign Ministry announced that two Czech military diplomats were declared persona non grata. Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrayiny (Security Service of Ukraine,SBU) spokesperson Maryna Ostapenko identified them at the briefing as Defense Attaché Zdeněk Kubíček and Military Attaché Major Petra Novotná and commented that they had been in unlawful contact with Ukrainian citizens who had access to state secrets.
Two members of the attaché department of the Czech embassy in Ukraine tried to obtain secrets pertaining to the production of tanks and planes. At least, this is what the SBU claims. It is tasked with counteracting espionage, so this is not surprising. Nor is the fact that these two Czech diplomats were declared personae non grata. But disseminating this statement so widely and so demonstratively was a political action, just like taking “offence” at the Czechs’ subsequent expulsion of two employees of Ukraine’s embassy in Prague. After all, this is the well-established “principle of reciprocity” in action.
In fact, the counterintelligence of every country knows its potential targets in foreign embassies and when country A kicks out an agent of country B, the latter pays back in kind. However, public scandals are rare. Kyiv now wants, at least on the level of declarations, to sign an association agreement with the EU, while Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, is Czech. Could it be that by catching the spies red-handed, the SBU was protecting someone else’s interests and not just national interests?
This exchange raises a number of questions. It appears that someone has taken advantage of Ukraine, putting its reputation on the line.
EPISODE ONE. THE EXPULSION
According to the SBU, the Czechs recruited two Ukrainian citizens: one from the Defense Ministry and another from Aircraft Repair Plant 410. The two allegedly generously shared information, such as the prospects of the Pivdenmash Construction Bureau, programs to develop the Ukrainian-Russian military AN-70 cargo aircraft, and a new AN-178, as well as other documents.
The Ukrainian citizens were detained (the Defense Ministry employee at a border crossing). There is reason to believe that some of the materials transferred to the Czech diplomats contained information about projects Pivdenmash has been doing for Russia.
The SBU said it had watched the Czech diplomats for two years and provided the Foreign Ministry with “undeniable evidence” of their intelligence gathering activities in violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The Foreign Ministry used the evidence in the note it handed to Vítězslav Pivoňka, chargé d'affaires ad interim of the Czech Republic in Ukraine.
No one has actually challenged the charges themselves. Things like that are common in international relations with even allies spying against each other. However, this is the first incident of its kind between Ukraine and the Czech Republic. From a certain angle, it could even be viewed as a positive thing: if nothing else, Ukraine still has some data and designs that are valuable to others.
EPISODE TWO. THE REACTION
According to the second biggest daily in the Czech Republic, Mlada Frona Dnes, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg believes that this affair was the Ukrainian government's reaction to the Czech Republic granting political asylum former Ukrainian Economy Minister, Bohdan Danylyshyn.
Of course, Kyiv has officially dismissed the alleged connection between the Danylyshyn case and the expulsion of the two Czech diplomats. Moreover, when the Czechs declared two Ukrainian diplomats personae non grata, Ukraine labeled the move an “inadequate reaction,” even though it fits well with the so-called principle of reciprocity.
Informed sources say that Prince Schwarzenberg and his staff were simply outraged by the treachery show by the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry: Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine Ruslan Demchenko guaranteed confidentiality as he handed the notes to the Czech chargé d'affaires in Kyiv, but these guarantees were immediately violated as the Czech diplomats were identified and a scandal erupted.
Informed experts say that it may have been a provocation orchestrated from abroad and that the Ukrainian establishment was given the “right” prompt at the right time about what it had to do. On the other hand, our government has exhibited a lack of professionalism and a sheer failure to understand the consequences of its move. This is surprising, considering that Viktor Yanukovych seems to have enough qualified people around himself who are knowledgeable of diplomatic decorum – Foreign Minister Kostiantyn Hryshenko for one. But for some reason the president either did not listen to them or did not even ask.
EPISODE THREE. NUANCES
There are plenty of nuances in the Ukrainian-Czech spy scandal. The first thing that catches the eye of anyone who has ever dealt with foreign and international affairs is that special briefings, public statements and announcements about diplomats being given the persona non grata status are exceptionally rare. While diplomats routinely engage in intelligence activities, their expulsion for violating the Vienna Convention usually takes place very quietly.
In recent Ukrainian history, two Romanian diplomats were expelled in 2009 without much fuss from either side. That same year a scandal erupted over the proposal of Ukraine's Foreign Ministry to expel Aleksandr Grachev, the Russian consul in Odessa who was accused of anti-Ukrainian activities, and Vladimir Lysenko, counselor to the Russian embassy who was in charge of Black Sea Fleet affairs. In response, Russia expelled a counselor to the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow and Ukraine's consul general in Saint Petersburg.
EPISODE FOUR. DÉJÀ VU
Remarkably, the actions, tone of ensuing statements and the emphasis placed on the spy scandal were a replica of those typically associated with the Soviet Union and, in the past 20 years, also Russia and Belarus. Given this, one is reminded of the straightforward admission made by SBU Chief Valeriy Khoroshkovsky that his agency is similar to Russia’s FSB and Belarus’ KGB in “operational procedures, tools and methods of analysis.” There is a certain chain of events confirming that the SBU is indeed following in the footsteps of the Soviet KGB: SBU officers made a visit to Lviv Catholic University in 2010; Nico Lange, Director of the Kyiv Office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, was detained in an airport; the SBU put pressure on a Ukrainian blogger; and, finally, it produced the current spy scandal.
Why was the Czech Republic chosen as the target? Why not the United States, Russia or another country gathering serious intelligence data in Ukraine? Why not Israel whose special services recently kidnapped a Palestinian in Ukrainian territory with impunity? Why did it have to be the Czech Republic, whose foreign minister, mind you, has done a lot in the past year to make the European Union finally pay attention to Ukraine? One Ukrainian diplomat told The Ukrainian Week that these other countries, but not the Czechs, could have taken offense and given offense back to Ukraine. There is one more link here: if the Czech Republic has indeed facilitated rapprochement between Ukraine and the EU, some may be less than pleased to see that happening.
Ukraine’s supporters in Prague also harbor a deep suspicion that regardless of whether or not the Czech diplomats were indeed spies, the scandal was timed to coincide with Ukraine’s reaching the final stage in its negotiations about an association agreement with the EU.
Statements made both in Kyiv and Prague suggest that neither country is really interested in escalating the conflict. The damage has been done. The scandal has proved, first, that Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry is not independent in its actions and, second, that the Ukrainian government in general is being controlled from the outside.
No matter what is said or done in Kyiv, doubt will linger. Counterintelligence agencies must counteract other countries in their intelligence-gathering and other anti-national activities but not in a way that raises suspicions that in doing so it may be carrying out a special mission against its own state.
For Ukrainians incarcerated in the occupied territories and in the Russian Federation itself, things could get much worse in 2018. Only serious international pressure is likely to make Moscow release these political prisoners