When Slovakia reacted to the fraudulent behaviour of the Russian state and expelled three of its diplomats, politicians and the media in Russia pulled out clichés about pressure from the USA.
After the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, Slovakia can finally boast of increased attention from the Russian intelligence services – attention which Slovakia repaid with the expulsion of Russian intelligence services’ members or collaborators.
At the end of September 2020, the Slovak Information Service (SIS) published a report on its activities in 2019.
In the chapter on counterintelligence, it described “activities of foreign intelligence services against the interests of the Slovak Republic and its allies”.
It focused mainly on two countries – Russia and China.
Under diplomatic cover
According to the SIS, “the activities of Russian intelligence services were directed against the protected interests of the Slovak Republic as a member of the EU and NATO.
Members of the Russian intelligence services, operating on the territory of the Slovak Republic mainly under diplomatic cover, sought to infiltrate the central state administration and security forces and to acquire collaborators in the energy and military fields.
They regularly participated in professional events focused on energy and military issues, where they tried to contact the interested persons with access to sensitive classified information from the EU and NATO environment, as well as persons close to highest state officials.”
The document continued with a chapter on hybrid threats, in which the SIS pointed out that “Slovakia, as an EU and NATO member state, faced mainly influence campaigns of foreign powers aimed at weakening the political cohesion of both international organisations in order to disrupt their unity, ability to act and defend themselves. Foreign actors have focused on influencing elites, the professional community, and the population with an aim to produce mistrust in these international organisations and questioning the Allies’ willingness to fulfil their solidarity obligations the membership in these organisations assumes”.
Also in this part of the report, the Slovak intelligence service focused mainly on two countries – Russia and China. It stated that “the primary sources of campaigns aimed at discrediting the EU and NATO were Russian sources (official media, state institutions, think tanks, experts), which formed the strategic direction of this communication. Their messages were subsequently adopted by similarly oriented media and organisations in European countries.
The main disseminators of pro-Russian narratives in the Slovak Republic were pro-Russian non-governmental organisations and groups on social networks, Russian news media, including their foreign branches, and the so-called alternative media.
As in the previous period, Russian propaganda in high degree used pro-Russian sympathisers, who out of their own convictions uncritically adapted and further spread these messages.”
In 2019, the SIS also issued a report on its activities for the previous year, highlighting the hostile activities of Russia and China, but in this year’s report information on influencing operations was more detailed and specific, especially with regard to domestic, Slovak disseminators of Russian influence.
Unambiguous formulations of Slovak intelligence analysts painted a picture of a branched ecosystem of activities aimed at damaging the country’s internal democratic organisation and its foreign policy ties.
The case of deported diplomats
The Russian pro-government media monitoring developments in Central European countries have noticed the current SIS report. They pointed out that this is not the first report in which Slovakia accuses Russia of trying to penetrate its state management system.
Finally, in August 2020, the Russian media themselves paid considerable attention to the case of the expulsion of three Russian diplomats, which resonated exceptionally in Slovak-Russian international relations.
In August 2020, the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it had asked three diplomatic staff of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Bratislava to leave Slovakia for activities incompatible with the diplomatic status.
The decision came after an internal investigation by the Slovak Foreign Service in connection with the finding that the Slovak Consulate General in St. Petersburg issued a Schengen entry visa to a Russian citizen who used it to visit Germany, where he helped with the assassination of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen origin in Berlin in August 2019. The murder was apparently an operation of one of Russia’s secret services – either the FSB or the GRU.
The visa was issued to a certain Roman Davydov, as it turned out later, to a person with a false identity, apparently a GRU officer. In its statement, the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointed to the direct connection between the decision to expel Russian diplomats and the murder in Berlin:
“In addition, the visas issued at the Slovak Consulate General in St. Petersburg were misused and a serious crime was committed in this connection on the territory of another NATO and EU member state.”
The expulsion of Russian diplomats provoked a relatively large response in Slovakia (in the media, in the foreign policy and security community, but also on the political scene), mainly because it became a certain indicator of the change of approach of government representatives that took place in relations with Russia.
After the parliamentary elections in February 2020, which brought victory to the centre-right parties and the defeat of Smer-SD and the SNS, the Russian pro-government media claimed that Russia had lost a friendly country in Central Europe.
Although such a statement speaks more about the criteria set by the evaluators than about reality itself, the fact is that Slovak foreign policy became much clearer and more readable after the 2020 elections – in addition to a sharply critical reaction to Russia’s unacceptable behaviour in the case of misusing a Slovak visa to murder Khangoshvili; Slovak recognition of Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela; and a clear approach to the rigging of the elections and the subsequent massacres of protesters in Belarus.
Thanks to the prompt reaction of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivan Korčok, Slovakia was the first country that refused to recognise the legitimacy of the usurper Alexander Lukashenko after his secret inauguration.
Russia’s response: “The US is behind it all”
Unlike its two neighbours, Poland and the Czech Republic, Slovakia has not appeared very often in the Russian media (with the exception of reports on the February parliamentary elections, the results of which many Russian commentators did not like).
However, the expulsion of Russian diplomats could not be missed by the Russian media. It was one of the most frequently publicised news stories from abroad on the day it happened.
The first publicised commentary on this event also became frequently shared, as its author was none other than Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov. Although he reiterated that he considered Slovakia to be a “friendly country” towards Russia, with which no political problems have arisen so far, he also left no doubt as to where the wind was blowing from.
Sergei Lavrov did not lose a word about the circumstances and causes of deportation, but he depicted Slovakia unable to make its own decisions.
The head of Russian diplomacy said that statements by US officials in connection with the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Slovakia may indicate that Washington was involved in the situation. “I don’t think it is Slovakia,” Lavrov confessed, noting that Morgan Ortagus, head of the US State Department’s press service, gave a positive assessment of the Slovak authorities’ decision.
“In my opinion, no other foreign official has commented on this situation in this way. Therefore, everyone can draw conclusions about who could have participated and been interested in the decision taken by sovereign Slovakia in relation to the three Russian diplomats,” Lavrov told reporters.
The question arises: “How would the Russian minister comment on the above-mentioned event if Ortagus abstained from her comment?” Russia expelled three Slovak diplomats as part of an immediately announced “symmetrical answer”.
Several pro-government Russian media and other officials immediately joined the spread of Lavrov’s hastily conceived narrative on external pressure, which Slovakia allegedly succumbed to when deciding on the case of three Russian diplomats.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, the vice-chairman of the committee of the Federation Council of the Russian Parliament, told Izvestia:
“Such situations leave a very unpleasant taste. We understand that Slovak special services are not completely free to do what they want. It was probably at the behest of Americans, who feel absolutely free to do whatever they want in all NATO countries.”
To FAN agency Dzhabarov explained that “for some reason, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have become very active in the fight against Russia. I do not know what is the reason for that. Perhaps the overall attitude of the leaders of these countries have become suspiciously anti-Russian, and the Americans are actively using it.”
Artyom Kureyev, an expert at the “Valday” club, which brings together supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin from around the world, told RIA Novosti:
“Slovakia has underlined its pro-American direction by expelling Russian diplomats from the country. The expulsion of the staff of the Russian diplomatic mission may have been a request by Washington and a desire by Bratislava, after the Czech Republic, to demonstrate loyalty to the USA.”
The expert tried to frame Slovakia’s policy towards Russia chronologically. He was able to produce the following:
“In the first decade of the 21st century, Slovakia continued in one of the most pro-Russian political directions in Europe. Slovaks, for example, voted against European resolutions on Russia during the operation “Enforcement to peace” in South Ossetia, actively developing cooperation with Moscow. Slovak leaders have traditionally participated in such commemorative events as the 60th and 65th anniversaries of victory.”
According to Kureyev, however, the situation changed sharply in 2014. Bratislava supported “anti-Russian sanctions in connection with the unification of Russia with Crimea and began to refuse cooperation with Moscow.
The current head of state, Zuzana Čaputová, openly declares that she fully supports the sanctions. The Slovak elite ignored the celebrations of Victory Day 2020 (obviously untrue claim – G. M.). Čaputová and her circles make every effort to emphasise its pro-Western and pro-American course.”
Like Russian officials (minister Lavrov, senator Dzhabarov), the Valdai Club expert did not say a word about what immediately prompted Slovakia to expel Russian diplomats. He did not notice at all that Russian military intelligence brutally deceived the diplomatic mission of a “friendly state” and sent an accomplice to the murder with a false identity to Europe with a Slovak visa.
It seems that Moscow and its media service were interested in hiding this connection from the Russian audience and camouflaging it with an accusation of the alleged American pressure.
The Valdai expert questioned the reasons that led the Slovak side to expel three diplomats, considering that “the reason could have been invented and reproduced in the media.” He claimed that “if diplomats had been caught doing something really reprehensible, they would not just be deported, but a huge scandal would break out in the anti-Russian media.”
According to this strange logic, the fact that the “huge scandal” did not break out, while it did not break out “in the anti-Russian media”, testifies to the injustice of deportation.
A commentator of Radio Sputnik claimed that in its decision to expel Russian diplomats, Slovakia met the “Russophobia norm” demanded by the United States. Assessing the positive reaction of the US State Department to the expulsion of Russian diplomats, he said that “apparently, Slovakia was asked to show a gesture, same as other countries that had previously expelled Russian diplomats, demanded by the US State Department. This suggests that the action was to some extent planned. They all agreed a step – pressure on the Russian side.”
So, according to Radio Sputnik commentator, Slovakia participated in this school exercise and the US State Department gave it a mark.
The Russian commentator is convinced that “there is general pressure from the US forcing small countries to do this. Namely, if you do not do so, you will get a bad mark, you will be suspected of being pro-Russian.
The Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs was apparently waiting for a good mark from the US State Department, so it met its standard of Russophobia, which the US demanded of it.”
It takes one to know one?
Russian officials (not to mention the pro-government media) do not seem to realise that their insulting assumptions that a sovereign country’s decisions to prevent the illegal activities of foreign diplomats or to critically respond to fraudulent behaviour of foreign intelligence have to be under pressure from allies, make all their accompanying declarations of friendship sound void.
It is possible that it is an “it takes one to know one” situation. That would make sense.
However, Slovakia is a member of such alliances in which not coercion and orders, but equality and solidarity apply.
This article is the tenth of a monthly series called “Central Europe in the mirror of Russian media“ run by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) and the supported by the Open Information Partnership. It is also available in Slovak on Denník N.