Czech accusations the Kremlin was behind a 2014 explosion at a munitions depot that killed two people and the subsequent expulsion of 18 ‘diplomats’ will further damage already strained relations, notwithstanding the president’s pro-Russian leanings.

The Czech Republic accused Russia on April 17 of being behind a 2014 explosion at a remote munitions depot that killed two people. Prague will expel almost two dozen Russian embassy staff in response.

The operatives suspected of organising the attack on the ammo dump in Vrbetice in the eastern Moravian region are the same members of Russia’s military intelligence service GRU accused of poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK in 2018. The case illustrates once more the Kremlin’s reach across Europe, and threatens to hurt already strained relations between Prague and Moscow.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis announced during a shocking press conference that the Czech security services have clear evidence of the involvement of GRU’s specialised 29155 unit, which is believed to be tasked with sabotage, subversion and assassination, in the explosion. Prague will expel 18 embassy staff who it says are members of the Russian secret services. They have 48 hours to leave the Czech Republic.

Police, meanwhile, released images of Anatoly Chepig and Alexander Mishkin, the GRU agents accused of attempting to kill the Skripals with Novichok, detailing their involvement in the 2014 blast. Alongside the infamous mug shots, the police appealed for help in tracking down the pair.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the Czech actions a provocation, and claimed “American footprints” are clear. “We will take retaliatory measures that will force the authors of this provocation to fully understand their responsibility to destroy the foundations of normal relations between our countries,” it said in a statement.

Ondrej Vesely, chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, said on television that, “This was the largest attack on our territory since 1968”, alluding to the Soviet invasion of that year. And Jan Hamacek, deputy prime minister and acting foreign minister, expressed regret that the incident would “fundamentally damage Czech-Russian relations”.

Analysts agree, suggesting the events will have a devastating effect. “Relations were already far from ideal. More and more issues have been cropping up in recent years,” Pavel Havlicek, an expert on Eastern Europe at Prague’s Association for International Affairs, tells BIRN. “But this puts them beyond catastrophic.”

Long arm of the GRU
The explosion of 50 tonnes of munitions at the Vrbetice depot in October 2014 killed workers Vratislav Havranek and Ludek Petrik. Windows across the district were shattered. However, the cause of the blast had not been previously declared. Czech weekly Respekt reports that police and security services have been working on the case since, and that new information was found last year.

The investigators tracked the movements of Chepig and Mishkin during a trip to the Czech Republic. Arriving on October 13 under the same cover identities they used in Salisbury – Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov – the pair had arranged in advance to visit the Vrbetice facility between October 13 and 17. They left the country on October 16, the day of the explosion, flying to Vienna and then to Moscow.

While the authorities do not seem clear on how the depot was blown up, they are convinced that it became a target for Russia because it was storing weapons that a Bulgarian arms dealing company called Dunarit was due to ship to Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed rebels in Donbas.

The Czech police suspect that the plan was to discredit Dunarit in the eyes of its Ukrainian customer. Respekt also reports that it is thought the explosion was meant to happen in another country during the transit of the weapons, but that the charges were accidentally triggered early, perhaps by Havranek and Petrik.

The news of the alleged GRU operation saw the Czech Republic’s NATO and EU allies express support. A NATO official told Reuters that the case is another example of Moscow’s dangerous behaviour. Germany, Poland and Ukraine have also made statements.

British foreign secretary Dominic Raab said Prague has “exposed the lengths that the Russian intelligence services will go to in their attempts to conduct dangerous and malign operations in Europe”.

It is now understood that the Czech attack was a missed warning. Following the Vrbetice explosion, the focus moved to Bulgaria.

Like Skripal, Emilian Gebrev fell into a coma after being poisoned in an attack in Sofia in April 2015. The Bulgarian arms dealer has since fought the authorities in his home country to have it properly investigated. European security apparatus now recognises the attack on Gebrev as an early sign of a Kremlin campaign to eliminate enemies at home and abroad, and part of a pattern.

Gebrev’s son and another arms industry executive also fell ill after someone had smeared the handles of Gebrev’s car with a substance similar to Novichok. The same nerve agent was not only used against the Skripals, but was also administered last year in an attempt on the life of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

Months after the first attack, Gebrev and his son survived another attack at their house on the Black Sea. The Bulgarian authorities opened an investigation but dropped the case in 2016 after turning up little evidence. However, when Gebrev saw the Skripal story in 2018 he successfully demanded further action, calling the attacks “a pure act of terrorism”.

Bulgarian prosecutors said in 2019 that the other Russian agent suspected in the Skripal poisoning – travelling under the pseudonym Sergei Fedotov – was in Sofia at the time of the 2015 attack. They issued an arrest warrant for him and two other Russians at the end of January 2020.

Golden toilets and ketchup
Unlike many other European countries, Bulgaria did not expel Russian diplomats following the Skripal poisoning in 2018. However, following the arrest in Bulgaria of six people on suspicion of espionage, Sofia in March declared two senior Russian diplomats personae non gratae and gave them 72 hours to leave.

The Czech government has been much clearer on its stance. It expelled three Russian diplomats to show its support for the UK in 2018, and more have gone in the meantime as relations deteriorated over recent years.

As it revealed the evidence around the Vrbetice explosion, Prague has upped the ante. Hamacek summoned Russian Ambassador Alexander Zmeyevsky on Saturday evening to tell him that the 18 spies would be ejected from the country.

The Czech security services have long warned that the Russian embassy in Prague, which houses more officials than its peer in London, is stuffed with spies that operate across Europe. It is thought that of the 136 Russians registered at the embassy in June 2020, at least half worked for the Russian security services. The Czech Foreign Ministry has been trying to negotiate a staff reduction for years.

Czech security services continue to warn that Moscow is seeking to spread turmoil in the country. Dozens of disinformation websites are thought to be targeting the country, helping to stir political chaos and the culture wars that blight Europe.

With the help of the controversial President Milos Zeman, this strategy has proved highly effective. Just in the last fortnight, the head of state’s insistence that Czechia should use Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has cost Babis’s government two ministers and its majority in parliament.

Hamacek, who is also interior minister, was due to visit Moscow next week to discuss a possible purchase of Sputnik V, but he said in a statement that he cancelled the trip when he was alerted to the police investigation’s findings.

Babis, over whose weak government Zeman holds considerable leverage, told the media that the president fully supports the government’s actions. However, opposition parties insist that 18 expulsions are not enough given the size of the Russian contingent in Prague, and so Zeman’s approval is perhaps not so surprising.

The president has, since he came to power in 2013, consistently sought to overturn the government’s official pro-Western stance to push the country closer to Russia. He has criticised EU sanctions against Russia’s annexation of Crimea on numerous occasions, and in 2017 prompted shock when he suggested Ukraine accept “compensation” for the peninsula.

During the Skripal crisis, Zeman came to Moscow’s defence, claiming it is not the only state to possess Novichok, telling the media that the poison used in Salisbury could even have been produced in the Czech Republic. In response to the warnings from the security services that Russian intelligence is the country’s top threat, the president branded them amateurs and bozos.

However, the campaign has backfired in many ways, helping to provoke a series of spats that have damaged relations, with Czechia’s liberal political establishment – including politicians, the security services and the media – seeking to resist the president’s push.

The removal of a statue of Red Army marshal Ivan Konev last year from a Prague square provoked fury in Moscow. The Czech capital promptly renamed the square that the Russian embassy sits on after slain opposition figure Boris Nemtsov.

These incidents have done little for Russia’s image among the Czech public. Even before the announcement of the Vrbetice investigation on Saturday, protestors calling for the release of Navalny had placed a giant golden toilet with a naked model of President Vladimir Putin perched upon it outside the embassy.

After news of the suspected links to the 2014 explosion broke, the perimeter wall was smeared with ketchup. The following day, riot police stood guard as protestors gathered waving EU and NATO flags.

In retaliation, late on Sunday Russia announced that it is expelling 20 Czech diplomats from the embassy in Moscow. The revelations will only harden the pro-Western stance of the country’s political establishment, suggests Havlicek.

“There was already a cross-party consensus – apart from the Communists and far-right – that there’s no alternative,” the analyst says. “These latest revelations will only deepen this stance, and drive a more radical review of relations with Russia.”

The events are already affecting high-level issues between Prague and Moscow. Russia’s hopes of entering an upcoming tender to build new nuclear reactors now look dim, Czech government officials said, while Zeman’s plans to get the country to start using Sputnik V are unlikely to fly.

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