One of two explosions near a small Czech Village Vrbětice that happened in 2014 took lives of two men and caused serious damage. The incident would have remained merely a local event and would not have turned into a major international issue if not for two reasons. First, the explosion occurred at an arms depot used by a Czech company Imex Group where weapons of a Bulgarian arms trading firm EMCO were stored. Second, after almost seven years of silence, new evidence related to the incident was brought out to light by Czech authorities that link the explosions to a Russian intelligence unit 29155 whose operatives are said to have perpetrated the world-famous Salisbury poisoning.1 The issue quickly acquired an international dimension involving spies, investigative journalists, multiple governments, diplomatic expulsions, and the deterioration of the relations between Russia and a number of European states.
One of the key questions about the explosions involved the strategic importance of a village with a population of just around 400 people. At this point, it is rather useful to take a look at the personality of a Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev whose company’s weapons were stored in a depot nearby the ill- fated village.
Gebrev is a widely known person in the field of trading arms across the African continent and Eastern Europe. The businessman’s enterprise was even once on the US blacklist2 due to its alleged malpractices. However, what makes him an important element in the case of Vrbětice is the fact that his company’s weapons were detected in the Donbas region of Ukraine as it was supplying3 arms to the Ukrainian forces fighting against the pro-Russian rebels in the Eastern part of the country. Despite the statements claiming that the weaponry from the Vrbětice depot were not supposed4 to be sold to Ukraine, the munitions warehouse presented a very convenient target for Russian intelligence services if their goal was to signal the Bulgarian arms dealer to stop conducting business with Ukraine. What is more, soon after the explosions Gebrev fell ill with symptoms drastically similar to those revealed during the Salisbury ‘Novichok’ poisonings. The explosions and the poisoning appear to be a warning directed at Gebrev and his company in relation to the events in Donbas.
Shockwaves after seven years
While some experts compare the deterioration of bilateral ties between Russia and the Czech Republic to the events of 19485 or even to the Prague Spring of 19686, another question regarding the explosions remains as such: why did the aftershocks of the explosions hit the international arena only now? Previously, it was announced that the Czech authorities had had the new piece of evidence in possession for quite some time,7 why did they make it public just now?
According to Czech authorities, the site of the explosion was completely destroyed8 and for years it has not been possible to secure detailed evidence that would have shed more light on the incident. However, only recently Czech experts managed to obtain some “unequivocal”9 evidence and published them. The insights by the investigative journalist organization Bellingcat support these statements10. According to the published data, 11 two members of the Russian intelligence agency (GRU), Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin visited Vrbětice a few days before the explosions took place. Then they went to Austria from where they returned to Moscow. What made their visit suspicious for Czech authorities and the European community is the fake passports and identities that the agents used to enter the Czech Republic. What is more, the identified persons appear to be the same operatives that attempted to poison a former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, the UK, in 2015.12
Meanwhile, what also made the recent resurfacing of the Vrbětice events extremely relevant to the West-Russia relations is the “vaccine race” and Moscow’s attempts to launch its Sputnik V in the European market. To remind, Czech Interior Minister and acting Foreign Minister Hamacek’s visit to Moscow for negotiations over procurement of the Russian vaccine was cancelled right after Prime Minister Andrej Babis accused Russia in causing the explosion. In addition, it is not the first time when Sputnik V created disturbances and confusion in Europe. In neighboring Slovakia, the prime minister13 was forced to step down over the dispute with his government about purchasing Sputnik V, which clearly indicates that matters of vaccination can be highly politicized.
The diplomatic and intelligence gathering activities of Moscow have been troubling Czech authorities for years now. It is hardly surprising considering the Russian Embassy had the largest diplomatic staff in Prague accommodating over 130 employees, including undercover intelligence agents.14 The need for further restraining of Moscow’s reach in the region appears to be a sufficient reason for a diplomatic escalation under the pretext of past wrongdoings on the Russian part.
Subsequently, the Czech Republic demanded reducing15 the number16 of Russian diplomats in its Embassy. Russia, expectedly enough, retaliated by reciprocal measures. However, as the Czech Embassy in Moscow did not have as many workers as the Russian Embassy in Prague in the first place, the reduction of its staff appears to have severely limited the country’s diplomatic standing in Russia. In an act of solidarity with the Czech Republic, a number of European states have also expelled17 Russian diplomats sending a signal to Moscow that the European community stands united and will not tolerate attacks on their sovereignty.18 The Kremlin, meanwhile, drew up a list of ‘unfriendly countries’19 that had only two entries: the US and the Czech Republic. In particular, countries on the list are prohibited from hiring Russian citizens.
The current situation also has been and will continue to be a stumbling stone in the Czech Republic – Russia relations. Currently, Prague plans to demand $47 million in compensation20 from Moscow for causing the damage in Vrbětice. It is hardly possible that the Kremlin will take this issue seriously21, however, given sufficient political will Prague may use this claim as a bargaining chip in any dealings with Moscow that are to come. Besides, controversial statements22 by Czech President Milos Zeman23, who is known for his pro-Russian attitudes, about the alleged absence of any evidence pointing at Russia as a perpetrator of the Vrbětice explosion poured some oil in the domestic debate over the issue – the risks24 of the Slovakian scenario are not that unsubstantiated.
As for Russia, its relations with the collective West remain at the lowest. A few days before the accusation against Russia were made public, the US imposed new sanctions on Russia and began the process of expelling ten Russian diplomats. 25 Currently, there are new pressing allegations over Moscow’s involvement in cyber-attacks26 in the US territory. The questions over the fate of the Nord Stream 2 also used to be a major spoiler of the Russia – West relations. Adding the Vrbětice on top of it represents another element in a chain of events leading to the escalation of diplomatic tensions. One of the direct consequences of it for Russia is its exclusion from the bidding process for a construction of two reactors in the Dukovany nuclear power plant.27
It appears that the resolution of these and other issues lies in the realm of the overall normalization of relations between Russia and its Western counterparts. The diplomatic tone in this process is set not in Prague, but in Brussels, Washington, and Moscow. Thus, as long as the involved parties continue pulling in opposing directions we will see more cases, such as Vrbětice, Salisbury, and many others. Now, after the unsuccessful visit of Josep Borrell28 to Moscow in February, Russia has gotten another chance to improve its relations with the West during the upcoming Biden-Putin summit in Geneva.29 However, currently it is unclear whether the meeting will bear any fruit or will further entrench the existing animosities.
10 https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2021/04/20/senior-gru-leader-directly-involved-with-czech-arms-depot- explosion
11 https://www.respekt.cz/agenda/za-vybuchem-municniho-skladu-ve-vrbeticich-stoji-rusti-agenti-kteri-se- pokusili-zabit-skripala?fbclid=
17 https://www.euronews.com/2021/04/23/estonia-latvia-and-lithuania-expel-russian-diplomats-in-support-of- czech-republic
20 https://ct24.ceskatelevize.cz/domaci/3309143-cesko-bude-po-rusku-vymahat-alespon-miliardu-za-vrbetice-rika- schillerova