European Union foreign ministers are set to discuss Czech accusations that Russian military agents linked to the 2018 Skripal nerve-agent poisoning in Britain were behind an earlier explosion at a Czech arms depot explosion that killed two people.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis on April 17 announced that 18 Russian diplomats would be expelled from the country, prompting Russia the following day to order 20 Czech Embassy employees in Moscow to leave.
The tit-for-tat move and Czech allegations have triggered its biggest dispute with Russia since the 1989 end of communist rule, putting the small Central European NATO member at the center of rising tensions between Moscow and the West.
Babis said the decision to expel the Russians was based on “unequivocal evidence” provided by Czech investigators pointing to the involvement of Russian military intelligence agents in the 2014 blast in the eastern town of Vrbetice.
The October 16, 2014 explosion in Vrbetice 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.
Babis specifically mentioned a unit of Russia’s GRU military intelligence 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 Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury.
Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, and his daughter Yulia, nearly died after being exposed to what British authorities later concluded was Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent. A British woman who accidentally came into contact with the substance died.
Britain’s NATO allies responded to the Skripal poisoning by imposing sanctions on Russia and expelling diplomats.
While the government unveiled its case, 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 whom Britain has blamed for the Skripal poisonings.
The open-source-investigation organization Bellingcat identified the suspects as GRU agents Aleksandr Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga.
The fresh dispute adds to a growing list of issues between the West and Moscow, including Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine’s borders and in occupied Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
Last week, the United States hit Moscow with major new sanctions and expelled 10 diplomats over alleged election interference, cyberattacks, and other perceived hostile activities. Russia responded by ordering a raft of measures and telling an equal number of U.S. diplomats to leave.
The United States, Britain, NATO, and the EU threw their support behind the Czech decision and pledged their support.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on April 18 that the Czech accusations were yet another example of “hostile” moves by Prague against Moscow.
“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.”
In another layer of the story, the arms-depot explosion may be linked to the conflict in Ukraine and the poisoning of a Bulgarian arms dealer.
The Czech news magazine Respekt reported that the ammunition and weaponry that was destroyed was intended for Ukraine, which in 2014 was battling Moscow-backed fighters in eastern Ukraine. A Bulgarian arms trader named Emilian Gebrev was reportedly the organizer of the arms deal with Ukraine, Respekt said.
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.
Babis said the attack had been aimed at a shipment to a Bulgarian arms trader, without naming the individual.
“This was an attack on ammunition that had already been paid for and was being stored for a Bulgarian arms trader,” he said on Czech Television.
He said the arms trader had later been the target of an attempted murder.
GRU Unit 29155 has also been linked to the attack against Gebrev in 2015. Bulgarian officials have said Gebrev, who survived, was targeted with a substance similar to Novichok.
In January 2019, Bulgarian prosecutors charged three Russians, including a top GRU officer, in absentia, in connection with that case.
With reporting by AP, Seznam Zpravy, Reuters, TASS, and Interfax