PRAGUE — When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Radio Free Europe and its sister broadcaster Radio Liberty seemed to outlive their purpose. Over the next quarter century, the U.S. government-supported stations kept broadcasting to Central Asia, but the urgency of the Cold War was gone.
That is, until an old adversary, the Kremlin, began to meddle again in foreign election campaigns, invading sovereign nations like Ukraine and spreading “alternative facts’’ through its state-supported RT television broadcaster and other web sites.
With Russia’s resurgence, the work of the U.S. government broadcaster, which has been based since 1995 in Prague, has taken on a new relevance.
In a hulking fortress on the outskirts of the Czech capital, the state-of-the-art headquarters of what is now called Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was abuzz with activity earlier this month for the launch of Current Time, a new Russian-language 24-hour satellite television station.
The broadcaster’s budget is up 35 percent since 2008, the year of Russia’s border war with Georgia. In targeting an area that runs from Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan, the February 7 launch of the new TV channel is an ambitious attempt to influence Russian speakers on their home turf, in their own language.
Prague is a hub for projecting Western influence into Russia.
“This is a long-term fight for minds,” said Executive Editor Kenan Aliyev, a native of Azerbaijan who served with the Soviet Army in former East Germany until the Berlin Wall fell.
Prague is a hub for projecting Western influence into Russia, and the city increasingly finds itself the target of propaganda, cyberattacks, espionage and big money lobbying from Moscow.
In a city where east-west conflicts were once settled by sending Soviet tanks onto Wenceslas Square, today’s struggle in Prague is covert, asymmetrical and online.
Though American tourists are common — they still account for the second-most overnight stays in the Czech capital after Germany — U.S. influence is on the wane.
Last year a study by the GLOBSEC Policy Institute, a think tank based in Bratislava, Slovakia, which focuses on trans-Atlantic relations, found that 49 percent of Czechs believed that the United States and NATO are responsible for the conflict in Ukraine, compared to 38 percent who disagreed.
More than half – 52 percent – thought neutrality for the Czech Republic was a better way to guarantee security than NATO membership.
“The Russians think there are opportunities here,” Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert and senior researcher at the Prague Institute for International Relations, an affiliate of the Czech Foreign Ministry, said. “Russian information can sometimes shift opinions a percentage point or two, and they view the Czechs as being up for grabs.”
U.S. multinationals took up residence in Prague after the country’s 1989 “Velvet’’ Revolution, often using it as a springboard into central and eastern Europe, but many now opt for Warsaw instead. A site 60 kilometers southwest of Prague was once earmarked for a radar base as part of a NATO missile defense system.
But the plan was scrapped amid local opposition in 2009 and, unlike in nearby Poland and the Baltic states, the Czechs have resisted basing U.S. troops in their country.
Meanwhile, Russia is bulking up in the Czech Republic. Some 140 diplomats staff its Prague embassy, a number that surpasses the 121 working out of its embassy in Washington. Karel Randak, the former head of the Czech foreign intelligence service, estimates that half of the Russians at the Prague embassy work for the secret services.
By contrast, the understaffed Czech counterintelligence has only about 30 agents, he says.
“This a pretty good country for the Russians; they have a lot of friends here and not only from the past,” Mr. Randak added. “It is much easier to get information about the E.U. or NATO than it would be in France or the Netherlands.”
Russian influence is not limited to its government presence.
In 2012, Russia’s Sberbank moved into the market, buying out Austria’s Volksbank, a large chain of savings and loans active in central Europe.
In 2015, Aeroflot boosted the number of its flights from Prague to Moscow from four to five per day. Looking ahead, Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom remains a top contender for a long-discussed expansion of Czech nuclear power capacity, and Russia supplies about 90 percent of the country’s natural gas.
Though statistically Russia’s share of foreign direct investment in the Czech Republic is low, experts believe dozens of shell companies with registrations elsewhere ultimately have Russian owners.
As tensions with the West and United States mount, Russia has stepped up its activities in Prague.
In 2015, the Kremlin launched a Czech-language version of its official Sputnik news website. Recent headlines included “American journalist has compromising materials on CNN,” “Budget revenues in Crimea are more than twice as much during the Ukrainian time,” and “Czech soldiers will be fighting for Germany?”
Another 50 Czech-language online sites are alleged to be spreading pro-Russian news, according to several studies, and reporters at Czech state radio found that between November 2015 and November 2016, the top 20 most-shared items from disinformation sites generated more interactions on Facebook than the top 20 items from standard news sources.
“The Kremlin is providing a narrative,” said Ivana Smolenova, a fellow at the Prague Security Studies Institute, a think tank founded by a former aide to the late Czech president Vaclav Havel. Ms. Smolenova is an expert on Russia-friendly media in the region, and tracks reporting on refugees, Ukraine and other issues across web sites.
The Czech government is increasingly worried about Russia’s aggressive approach.
In January, the foreign ministry said the email accounts of its top diplomats had been hacked by a “foreign government.’’ Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek called the incursion “very sophisticated’’ but would only blame “some foreign state,’’ according to local news reports.
Other Czech officials pointed the finger at Russia, which denied involvement. Meanwhile, the interior ministry launched a special counter-intelligence unit to out fake news reports. Armed with little more than a Twitter account, the so-called Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats has been up and running since the start of this year.
While influencing politics in central Europe is common and not restricted to Russia, “what is different about the Russians is that their aims are generally meant to be disruptive rather than bring anything specific about,” Mr. Galeotti of the international relations institute in Prague said.
“This a pretty good country for the Russians; they have a lot of friends here and not only from the past. It is much easier to get information about the E.U. or NATO than it would be in France or the Netherlands.”
There are signs Russia may have succeeded in infiltrating the highest levels of Czech government.
Czech Daily Mlada Fronta Dnes reported last year that Lukoil, the Russian oil company, paid a $1.4-million fine for Martin Nejedly, a top Czech economic adviser and campaign fundraiser to Czech President Milos Zeman. Mr. Nejedly, who previously worked for Lukoil, had been fined by a Czech court for improprieties over a botched deal to supply fuel to Czech airports.
The reports seemed to support suspicions that Russian money financed Mr. Zeman’s 2013 election campaign, which Mr. Zeman has denied. More than three years into his presidency, Mr. Nejedly still lacks a Czech government security clearance, according to local news reports.
“You don’t need an agent if you have a so-called agent of influence,” said Mr. Randak, who now works for an anti-corruption watchdog group. “Exactly how Mr. Zeman financed his campaign is still unclear, nobody knows.”
Mr. Zeman has described the military conflict in Ukraine as a “civil war’’ and appears to enjoy good contacts to Moscow. He was one of only two E.U. heads of state to attend the Moscow celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015.
There are suggestions he may also be getting help from Russian fake news efforts.
According to a survey of 60 million articles from more than 22,000 Russian-language online media sources between January 2014 and May 2016 by the Prague-based risk assessment firm Semantic Visions, Mr. Zeman enjoys a high profile in Russia.
In the survey, German Chancellor Angela Merkel lead all mentions, but Mr. Zeman was a surprising second, mentioned 70 percent more than then-U.K. prime minister, David Cameron, six times more than Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and 33 times more than European Council President Donald Tusk, a Russia critic and the former Polish prime minister.
Czech Daily Mlada Fronta Dnes reported last year that Lukoil, the Russian oil company, paid a $1.4-million fine for Martin Nejedly, a top Czech economic adviser and campaign fundraiser to Czech President Milos Zeman.
Russia’s new swagger in media ops comes in stark contrast to its disarray after the fall of communism. As late as 2008, when the Czech Republic was still being considered as a site for a U.S. missile defense radar, Russian diplomats were offended the United States didn’t consider their nation as the chief U.S. threat in the region.
“They looked at it as insult when you told them it was not oriented at them, that they weren’t perceived as a threat,” said Petr Kolar, who was the Czech ambassador to Washington from 2005-2010, and to Moscow in 2011-2012. “For them, there was no real difference between respect and fear.”
But as Russia regrouped, and began to assert itself in Europe under Vladimir Putin, the country began remobilizing its intelligence network in countries like the Czech Republic.
As far back as 2008, Prague had emerged as a hub of Russian activity, according to the annual report of the Czech counterintelligence services, which “focused mainly on operations of intelligence services of the Russian Federation, which are by far the most active ones in our territory.”
Now, East-West tensions are higher than at any time since the Cold War and the stakes are again just as high for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. The two operations broadcast to 23 countries, mostly in Central Asia, in 26 languages.
“Russian television has effectively built an audience, you have to go after that,” said Mr. Aliyev, the broadcaster’s executive editor.
Current Time focuses on news that is unlikely to show up on Russian state television.
“‘Old, fat, scary’ flight attendant accuses Aeroflot of discrimination,” and “[Defense Minister Sergey] Shoygu officially confirmed that Russia has established ‘information operations troops’” were among the most viewed stories on a recent day.
The staff includes many eastern European and central Asian dissidents banned from their native countries, and journalists who lost work as the Kremlin tightened its grip on Russia’s media.
Although it is not in their broadcast region, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are fighting an uphill battle right outside their door in the Czech Republic, where Russia’s charm and disinformation offensive appears to be working.
Mr. Zeman, who is 72, may run for reelection in January 2018. Polls show he would be a heavy favorite to win over a pro-western candidate.
Correction: This story was corrected to note that Kenan Aliyev is the executive editor of Current Time TV, a 24-hour Russian-language TV channel, which is a product of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. An earlier version of the story incorrectly identified him as executive editor of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
Benjamin Cunningham is an American journalist living in Prague. To reach the author: firstname.lastname@example.org