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Relations between Czech Republic and Russia hit new low: What happened?

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Prague, Czech Republic – Relations between the Czech Republic and Russia have hit a new low following an investigation into a deadly Czech ammunition depot blast in 2014. Here’s all you need to know about the high-profile story involving two notorious Russian spies, a Bulgarian arms dealer and a presumably botched explosion on Czech soil.

Czech Republic and Russia expel more than a dozen diplomats over 2014 depot explosion

In an extraordinary press conference on Saturday evening, Prime Minister Andrej Babis and Interior Minister Jan Hamacek announced that the Czech security services had found clear evidence of the involvement of the Russian foreign military intelligence agency GRU’s involvement in the explosion of 50 tonnes of ammunition at a storage depot in Vrbetice, Moravia, in October 2014, which killed two Czech citizens.

As a result, the Czech government expelled 18 staff from the Russian embassy in Prague identified as covertly working for the Russian secret services. They were given 48 hours to leave the country.

In a tit-for-tat response, Moscow described the move as an “act of provocation” and announced the following day that it was expelling 20 Czech diplomats working in Russia, virtually eradicating Prague’s diplomatic presence in the country.

Why now?

According to security sources quoted by local Respekt magazine, investigators from the Czech police’s organized crime unit, in cooperation with the BIS counterintelligence agency and the Brno regional prosecutor’s office, have been working for years to uncover what happened in Vrbetice in 2014.

Thanks to new evidence that came to light last year, Czech authorities were able to identify GRU agents Anatoly Chepig and Alexander Mishkin as the two main culprits responsible for the 2014 blast. The two men, members of the GRU’s notorious 29155 unit, already made headlines around the world as the main suspects in the failed Novichok poison assassination attempt against former GRU agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, in the UK, in 2018. They’re now wanted for questioning in the Czech case.

Uncertainty remains as to how long top Czech officials have known about the incident. Tomas Petricek, the former Czech foreign minister sacked one week ago, said the announcement did not come as a surprise as he was already aware of the evidence uncovered by Czech security forces.

Jan Hamacek, the Interior Minister also serving as acting Foreign Minister since Petricek’s dismissal, said he had cancelled a planned trip to Moscow after learning of Russia’s involvement.

What are the consequences of the growing rift between Russia and the Czech Republic?

Following the announcement, Czech security analysts and politicians from across the spectrum hailed the work of the local counterintelligence services, blasted Moscow’s involvement and accused Russia of “state terrorism” against a sovereign EU and NATO member state.

The Czech Republic has also received the support of a number of key EU and NATO allies. Acting Foreign Minister Hamacek is due to discuss the case at a meeting with EU foreign ministers on Monday.

Known for his close ties with Moscow and for regularly clashing with the Czech intelligence agencies over the issue of Russian espionage, President Milos Zeman still hasn’t issued a statement on the matter. Spokesman Jiri Ovcacek simply tweeted that M. Zeman had been informed of the latest developments.

Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2014 depot explosion is likely to have very real consequences in the Czech Republic, and comes in the wider context of deteriorating relations between Prague and Moscow. On Sunday, deputy Prime Minister Karel Havlicek said that the Russian company Rosatom will most likely be excluded from the tender to build an additional unit at the Dukovany nuclear plant – if confirmed, a significant blow to Russia’s ambitions in the Central European country.

Like other states in the region, the Czech Republic has for weeks been divided on whether or not to authorize the use of Russia’s Sputnik V anti-COVID vaccine ahead of the EU’s Medicines Agency’s approval. This now seems more than unlikely.

What happened in Vrbetice in 2014?

On 16 October, 2014, a massive explosion destroyed an ammunition depot operated by private Imex Group and located in a forest in Vrbetice, in Moravia. Two Czech civilian employees of the storage facility were found dead in what was initially believed to be an accident.

But a thorough investigation, restarted in the wake of the 2018 Salisbury poisoning case in Britain, found solid evidence of the involvement of Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, GRU spies and members of the elite 29155 unit – the same men suspected of having carried out the failed assassination attempt against Sergei Skripal using Novichok.

According to the Czech investigation, an email was sent by what claimed to be the National Guard of Tajikistan to Imex Group in order to green-light the visit of two men, introduced as Ruslan Tabarov from Tajikistan and Nicolaj Popa from Moldova, to inspect to Moravian ammunition depot. Investigators later found – including thanks to passport photographs and social media posts – that these were cover identities for GRU agents Chepiga and Mishkin. The two men arrived in Prague on October 11, checked in a hotel in Ostrava two days later and traveled to Vienna on the day of the explosion to catch a flight to Moscow.

Questions remain as to why exactly the depot was targeted. According to Czech security sources, the blast went off too soon and wasn’t meant to occur on Czech soil, but was initially supposed to target a shipment of ammunition bound for Ukraine, arranged by Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev. M. Gebrev himself is suspected to have been poisoned by GRU agents in Sofia in April 2015, six months after the explosion, but eventually recovered after spending some time in a coma.

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