The Czech Republic says it has informed NATO and the European Union about Russia’s alleged involvement in a deadly ammunition depot explosion in 2014, an accusation Russia called “absurd” and a sign of Washington’s influence on Prague.
Prague expelled 18 Russian diplomats on April 17, accusing them of being spies after Czech intelligence linked Russian military agents to the blast that killed two people.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the decision to expel the Russians was made on the basis of “unequivocal evidence” provided by investigators from the Czech intelligence and security services.
Acting Czech Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek said on April 18 in a tweet that the issue will be discussed at a meeting of EU foreign ministers on April 19.
The expulsions and allegations by the Czechs have triggered its biggest dispute with Russia since the end of communist rule in 1989, after Prague had been under Moscow’s domination for decades. The United States and Britain said they stood in solidarity with the Czech Republic in the dispute.
There is “reasonable suspicion regarding a role of members of Russian military intelligence…in the explosion of the munition depot in Vrbetice in 2014,” Babis said.
The Czech Republic “must react to these unprecedented revelations in a corresponding manner,” Babis added.
“We support our NATO ally the Czech Republic as it tackles and investigates Russia’s malign activities on its territory,” a NATO official told RFE/RL on April 18.
“This follows a pattern of dangerous behavior by Russia. We express our sympathy to the loved ones of the victims of the explosion in Vrbetice. Those responsible must be brought to justice.”
Hamacek, who is also the interior minister, said that the diplomats who had been identified as intelligence operatives had been ordered to leave the Czech Republic within 48 hours.
The October 16, 2014, blast in Vrbetice, in the eastern Czech region of Zlin, set off 50 metric tons of stored ammunition, killing two people. Two months later, another blast of 13 tons of ammunition occurred at the same site.
The cause of the explosions has never been publicly revealed. It was unclear if there was new intelligence that prompted Czech authorities to make the announcement or why the government decided to move now against the Russians.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on April 21 that the accusations were yet another example of “hostile” moves by Prague against Moscow, which have included disputes over the renaming of the square in front of the Russian Embassy after slain former Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov and the removal of a statue of a Soviet-era general from a Prague neighborhood.
“We will take retaliatory measures that will force the authors of this provocation to fully understand their responsibility for destroying the foundation of normal ties between our countries,” a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said.
“This hostile move was the continuation of a series of anti-Russian actions undertaken by the Czech Republic in recent years. It’s hard not to see the American trace [here],” it said, accusing Prague of “striving to please the United States against the backdrop of recent U.S. sanctions against Russia.”
Hamacek told Czech TV that “the Russians have already started preparation for the expulsion of Czech diplomats from Russia. The exact number is not yet known.”
The Czech news magazine Respekt reported that the ammunition and weaponry that was destroyed was intended for Ukraine, which in 2014 was battling Russia-backed fighters in eastern Ukraine. A Bulgarian arms trader named Emilian Gebrev was reportedly the organizer of the arms deal with Ukraine, Respekt said.
The Czech Republic ordered 18 Russian diplomats to leave the country after Czech intelligence linked Russian military agents to a massive ammunition depot explosion near Vrbetice on October 20, 2014.
Respekt said investigators last year received new information regarding the explosion, and the government’s intelligence committee had discussed the case just two weeks ago.
“Without specific details, I can confirm that international cooperation on this issue is under way, including cooperation with Bulgaria,” Hamacek said on Czech TV on April 18.
In his announcement, Babis blamed the blasts on the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU, and specifically on a secretive unit known as Unit 29155.
That unit has been linked to a series of attempted assassination plots and other sabotage across Europe, including the 2018 poisoning of Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England.
Skipal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, and his daughter Yulia nearly died that March after being exposed to what British authorities later concluded was Novichok, a powerful Soviet-era, military-grade nerve agent. A British woman who accidentally came into contact with the substance died.
Unit 29155 has also been linked to an attack against Gebrev in 2015. Bulgarian officials have said Gebrev, who survived, was targeted with a substance similar to Novichok. In January 2019, they charged three Russians, including a top GRU officer, in absentia in connection with that case.
As part of the government announcement on April 17, Czech police announced they were seeking two suspected Russian agents carrying various passports, including Russian documents, in the names of Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.
The names match those of the two men that Britain has blamed for the Skripal poisonings.
The open-source investigation organization Bellingcat identified the suspects as Aleksandr Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga and said they both worked for Unit 29155.
“The UK stands in full support of our Czech allies, who have exposed the lengths that the GRU will go to in their attempts to conduct dangerous and malign operations — and highlights a disturbing pattern of behaviour following the attack in Salisbury,” British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said on Twitter.
The president of the Czech Senate, meanwhile, suggested that the explosion could be considered an act of “state terrorism.”
“If this is confirmed, we must regard the actions of the Russian secret services as a very serious manifestation of aggression and hostility, which can also be described as an act of state terrorism,” Milos Vystrcil, a political opponent and longtime critic of Babis, told reporters. “It is necessary to react clearly, confidently, and harshly on it.”
Vladimir Japarov, first deputy chairman of the Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee, told the state news agency TASS that the reaction “should be proportionate.”
The U.S. Embassy in Prague tweeted following Babis’s announcement that “the United States stands with its steadfast ally, the Czech Republic. We appreciate their significant action to impose costs on Russia for its dangerous actions on Czech soil.”
Czech Industry Minister Karel Havlicek said on April 18 that the issue should preclude Russia’s Rosatom from taking part in the building of a new nuclear power station in the Czech Republic, or from even taking part in a security review of the project in the run-up to a tender.
“I can’t imagine Rosatom getting into the safety assessment at this moment,” Havlicek said on TV Prima. Two hours later, he confirmed that the Czechs would exclude Rosatom from the tender.
Czech security services have warned for years about the risks they say are posed by Russia and China participating in the building of a new block at the Dukovany nuclear power plant.
Earlier this year, political parties agreed on excluding Chinese bidders from the tender while not agreeing on Russian firms for the project, estimated to be worth at least $6 billion.
The Industry Ministry has started a prequalification round for the project, set as a security assessment for potential bidders, before the official launch of the tender, which is expected toward the end of 2021, after a new government takes office following general elections in October.