Czech charge of Russian agents’ role in deadly blast triggers tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats


Citing a new Czech intelligence report outlining compelling evidence tying Moscow to a deadly explosion at a Moravian ammunition depot in 2014, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš announced on Saturday the expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats identified as spies. Czech police have also issued wanted notices in connection with the blast for the same Russian agents implicated in a 2018 nerve gas attack against a former double agent in England. The repercussions and political shockwaves are resounding not just in Prague and Moscow, which announced a tit-for-tat expulsion of 20 Czech diplomats, but from Brussels to Washington.


The 2014 explosion at the ammunition depot of Vrbětice left two workers dead. At the time, Czech authorities raised the possibility of sabotage at the poorly secured site. Now, the Czech government is blaming two operatives from the same unit of Russia’s military intelligence agency that the British government charged in absentia for the Novichok attack on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.

In a hastily convened press conference on Saturday night, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš laid out the basic charge. The report by the counter-intelligence service BIS was to be declassified ahead of a cabinet meeting on Monday, with some details expected to be made public.

“Based on unequivocal evidence obtained during investigations by our security services, I must state that there is well-grounded suspicion of the involvement of officers from the Russian military intelligence service GRU, Unit 29155, in the explosion at the ammunition depot in the Vrbětice complex in 2014.”

Unit 29155 has been linked to a series of attempted assassination plots and other sabotage across Europe, including the botched poisoning of the Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev in 2015. Gebrev reportedly had munitions stored in Vrbětice when the 2014 blast occurred, slated for sale to Ukraine – then desperate for weapons to combat Russian-backed separatists and forces.

Czech authorities said the Russian operatives that Britain holds responsible for the Novichok attack (known by their aliases, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov) had been in the Czech Republic in the days leading up to, and including, the explosion in October 2014.

Interior Minister Jan Hamáček has only said that Czech authorities are now cooperating with Bulgaria on the matter, and that the 18 Russian diplomats expelled were spies from the GRU and another Russian intelligence services, the SVR.

“I am very sad that this matter will significantly harm Czech-Russian relations. But, as the prime minister said, the Czech Republic must react. We are in a similar situation as was for example Britain in the attempted poisoning case in Salisbury in 2018.”

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic has formally presented its suspicions to the country’s NATO and European Union allies. EU foreign ministers are set to discuss the issue at a meeting on Monday called to assess the bloc’s strategy towards Russia in the wake of a military build-up on Ukraine’s borders.

With the exception of Communists and far-right politicians, calls for decisive punitive action against Russia, including expelling diplomats, came from Czech parliamentarians from across the spectrum. Among them was Czech Senate chairman and speaker Miloš Vystrčil of the opposition Civic Democrats.

“The Senate has long fought against the negative influence of Russia and other undemocratic powers and warned of the dangers they pose… If involvement by Russian secret services in the explosion is proved, we must take this is a very serious act of aggression and hostility, which can even be described an act of state terrorism.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry called the Czech accusations “absurd” and accused the government of being an American puppet – with the allegations and expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats coming just days after the United States imposed heavy sanctions on Russian government officials and businesses in response to a large-scale hacking of US government computer systems.

Against that backdrop, Interior Minister Jan Hamáček told reporters on Monday that the Czech public should get sufficient declassified information to understand that the actions taken by the government thus far are warranted. Meanwhile, Industry and Trade Minister Karel Havlíček has said the Russian firm Rosatom will be barred from a multi-billion-euro bid to expand a Czech nuclear power plant – a step the opposition has long called for, citing Czech intelligence services concerns over national security.

Source

2 views0 comments