ANATOLIY CHEPIGA and Alexander Mishkin rose to fame when they appeared on Russian state television in September 2018 and insisted that they had visited the English city of Salisbury earlier that year not to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, but to visit the city’s famous cathedral. In fact, the gormless pair were veterans of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service. And Salisbury, it turns out, was not their first adventure. Four years earlier, it seems, they were involved in blowing up ammunition depots in the Czech Republic.
The revelation is the cause of yet another crisis in relations between Russia and the West, amid a Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, a new round of American sanctions and the fast-declining health of Alexei Navalny, a jailed Russian opposition leader who is on hunger strike.
On April 17th Andrej Babis, the Czech Republic’s prime minister, said that there was “clear evidence” that the GRU had been involved in a fatal blast at ammunition depots in Vrbetice, in the east of the country, in October and December 2014 (see map). At the time, Emilian Gebrev, a Bulgarian arms dealer, was thought to be buying weapons from the depot in order to supply them to Ukraine, which Russia had invaded earlier that year.
According to the Czech police, Messrs Chepiga and Mishkin were in Prague by October 11th and left the country on the 16th, the day of the blast, having rather incriminatingly booked in advance to visit Vrbetice (which does not have a cathedral). Notably, they employed the very same aliases that they would use four years later in England, either because of sloppy tradecraft or out of concern that biometric border controls would throw up any discrepancy between old photographs and new names.
The revelation of Russia’s involvement has prompted outrage in the Czech Republic. Bohuslav Sobotka, the country’s prime minister at the time of the incident, said that he had not previously been aware of Russia’s role. In an interview with Seznam Zpravy, a Czech website, published on April 18th, he described it as the largest attack on Czech soil “since the [Soviet] invasion in 1968”. The diplomatic fallout has been swift. Mr Babis announced that he would expel 18 Russian diplomats suspected of being intelligence officers, prompting Russia to expel 20 Czech diplomats in turn (essentially eliminating the Czech missions in Russia). Jan Hamacek, the Czech foreign minister, said on April 19th that he would like allies to follow suit “for solidarity”. The same day, the Czech government said that Rosatom, a Russian energy company, would be excluded from the tender for a power station in Dukovany.
The explosion at Vrbetice appears to have been part of a wider series of covert actions by Russia across Europe in recent years. Bellingcat, an investigative organisation that first revealed the name of the Salisbury poisoners, says that the pair belonged to a 20-strong squad within the GRU’s Unit 29155 previously associated with subversive activity in Crimea, Moldova, Montenegro and Switzerland between 2014 and 2017. The same group is also thought to have attempted the assassination of Mr Gebrev in Bulgaria in 2015. Many of its operators are recruited from the Spetsnaz, Russian special forces. “These are the guys that the GRU turns to when it wants someone killed, poisoned or blown up,” says Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian intelligence services at University College London.
After the conflict over Ukraine in 2014, Russia adopted a “wartime mentality”, says Mr Galeotti, running aggressive and high-risk operations with little regard to the consequences. The use of Novichok, an exotic nerve agent with Soviet origins, to poison Mr Skripal in 2018, for instance, suggested that the GRU was more interested in sending a message than maintaining a low profile. Yet the cumulative blowback has been severe. The exposure of individual operators like Mr Chepiga and Mr Mishkin is no great loss. But Russia’s embassy-based intelligence networks in Europe have also been steadily gutted.
In March 2018 more than 20 countries expelled suspected Russian intelligence officers in solidarity with Britain after the attempt on Mr Skripal’s life, including 60 expulsions from America. On April 15th America expelled another ten diplomats, in response to a large-scale Russian hacking campaign (perpetrated by the SVR, another Russian agency). Poland followed with three of its own. And on April 17th Russia kicked out a Ukrainian diplomat, prompting Ukraine to retaliate. The Czech expulsions came on top of all those.
Although Russian intelligence agencies will be able to rebuild their presence over time, these expulsions will have disrupted their work. The emptying of Russia’s rezidentura in Prague is a particular blow, because the embassy there is used as a base for Russian operations into other EU and NATO countries, notes European Values, a Czech think-tank. Russia’s reciprocal expulsions are likely to have a lesser impact on Western agencies, in part because Western spies in Russia face heavier surveillance and tighter constraints than vice versa.
All of this comes when relations between Russia and NATO are at a low ebb. A large build-up of Russian troops near eastern Ukraine and Crimea over March and April shows no sign of abating, prompting concerns about a possible Russian invasion. On April 19th Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, said that Russia had concentrated over 150,000 troops in the area. Russia has continued to squeeze Ukraine in recent days. On April 16th it said it would close off parts of the Black Sea near Crimea to foreign warships and “other state vessels” from April 24th to October 31st, raising concerns that it could disrupt traffic through the Kerch Strait to the Sea of Azov and key Ukrainian ports. The confluence of military tensions, Mr Navalny’s dire health and revelations of yet more Russian skulduggery is creating a febrile mood.