A Czech Explosion, Russian Agents, A Bulgarian Arms Dealer: The Recipe For A Major Spy Scandal In Central Europe
By Mike Eckel, Ivan Bedrov, Olha Komarova April 18, 2021
PRAGUE-- The explosion was massive, blowing out windows of houses kilometers away, leaving a smoldering crater in the eastern Czech forest, not far from the border with Slovakia.
The blast, on October 16, 2014, destroyed a cache of ammunition and related weaponry. The bodies of two men who worked at the site were recovered nearly a month later. A second explosion occurred about two months later at nearby location, about 1 kilometer away.
The incident rattled Czech authorities, who were already watching warily as 1,700 kilometers away, Ukraine was gripped in a ferocious fight with a separatist uprising that was stoked, and fueled, by Russia. If there was a known connection at the time, it wasn't ever revealed publicly by investigators.
On April 17, however, Czech officials made a stunning allegation, drawing a direct line between the explosions and the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU -- specifically, a division known as Unit 29155 that has been linked to assassination attempts and other subversive actions across Europe.
Coming as tensions mount in Ukraine over a massive Russian buildup of troops near its border, and with the United States hitting Moscow with major new sanctions, expelling 10 diplomats, the Czech announcement shook Prague's politics and was likely to further roil Western relations with Moscow.
"There is unequivocal evidence about the involvement of officers of the Russian intelligence service GRU...in the explosion of the ammunitions depot," Prime Minister Andrej Babis told an unusual night news conference on April 17. He also said 18 Russians working at the Russian Embassy were being expelled.
"The Czech Republic is a sovereign state and must react accordingly to those unprecedented revelations," he said.
The president of the Czech Senate, Milos Vystrcil, a political opponent and longtime critic of Babis, suggested that the explosion could be considered an act of "state terrorism," saying, "It is necessary to react clearly, confidently, and harshly on it."
With the announcement, Czech authorities drew an indirect line not only to Ukraine's war with Russia, but to a mysterious poisoning six months later in the Bulgarian capital that nearly killed an arms dealer named Emilian Gebrev.
Czech officials have not publicly announced a link between the explosions and Gebrev, but the public broadcaster Czech Radio and the news magazine Respekt cited unnamed security sources as saying Gebrev was involved.
Jan Hamacek, the Czech interior minister and current foreign minister, signaled that there was a connection with Bulgaria.
"Without specific details, I can confirm that international cooperation on this issue is under way, including cooperation with Bulgaria," he said in an interview with CT24 Czech news.
And a top former Ukrainian security official also confirmed to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that Kyiv had sought Gebrev's help in acquiring ammunition in 2014.
Russian officials denied the accusations; the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman called them "hocus-pocus." Moscow was expected to expel a similar number of Czech diplomats in retaliation.
"I cannot recall any single event over the past 30 years of Czech independence, since 1993," having this significance, Pavel Havlicek, a research fellow at the Prague-based Association for International Affairs, told RFE/RL. "This will have numerous political, diplomatic, social implications for Czech-Russian relations.
What Is Unit 29155?
The link between the ammunition blasts and the Gebrev poisoning, if confirmed, would add explosive new details to a growing body of evidence surrounding Unit 29155 and the GRU's overall activities across Europe.
Two other divisions -- known as Units 26165 and 74455 -- have figured into several international cyberhacking investigations. Both were named by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation into the hacking of political party computers in the United States in 2016.
They were also linked to efforts to hack into the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the latter of which has played a key role in investigating the use of Novichok and similar Russia-designed nerve agents.
Unit 29155, meanwhile, burst into wide public awareness nearly three years after the Gebrev poisoning, when a former Russian military intelligence officer named Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia fell suddenly ill in Salisbury, England.
Skripal had been convicted of treason in Russia more than a decade earlier, for allegedly passing classified information to Western intelligence. He was kicked out of Russia in 2010 in a spy swap involving undercover Russian agents working in the United States.
British authorities determined that the substance Skripal was exposed to was Novichok, a powerful nerve agent first developed by Soviet scientists. British officials, using closed-circuit TV footage and other data, accused two men they said were Russian military agents of being behind the incident, which also killed a British woman.
Reporters and open-source investigators, including the group Bellingcat, later pinpointed the identities of the men as Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, which U.S. and British authorities ultimately confirmed.
In October 2019, RFE/RL revealed further details about Unit 29155 when it uncovered photographs from a wedding hosted by the unit's commander and attended by one of the two alleged Novichok poisoners.
On April 17, at the same time that Babis and Czech officials were announcing the findings of the depot explosion investigation, Czech police released a statement saying Petrov and Boshirov had been in eastern Czech Republic in October 2014, around the time of the explosions, and said they were wanted for questioning.
The Bulgaria Connection
On April 28, 2015, while at a dinner at a luxury restaurant in Sofia, Gebrev began vomiting and was rushed to a military hospital, where he suffered from intense hallucinations. He ultimately fell into a coma. His son also fell ill suddenly, as did an executive at Gebrev's arms trading company EMCO.
Gebrev ultimately recovered. Bulgarian investigators made little headway in identifying a cause, or culprit, for his illness -- until some three years later, after the Skripal poisoning.
Working with the FBI, British intelligence, and other agencies, Bulgarian authorities concluded that a door handle of a car that belonged to Gebrev and which was parked in a Sofia parking garage had been smeared with a substance by an unknown man.
Bellingcat said that a known Russian operative who had traveled to England around the same time as the Skripal poisoning had also traveled to Bulgaria repeatedly. The man is believed to part of Unit 29155.
In January 2020, Bulgarian prosecutors charged three Russians for their alleged role in trying to poison Gebrev.
Gebrev's role in trying broker weapons sales to Ukraine isn't fully understood. News reports say Gebrev's company, EMCO, indeed had signed a contract with the Ukrainian government in 2014 to supply artillery ammunition.
However, Viktor Yahun, who was deputy chief of the Secret Service of Ukraine, the country's main intelligence unit, said that Kyiv in October 2014 had sought to acquire ammunition from Bulgaria around the time of the Czech depot explosions.
"This businessman who was poisoned and was allegedly poisoned by the Russian intelligence services, he was searching for such ammunition in the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, and the best place for their transit storage before sending to Ukraine was, in fact, the Czech Republic," Yahun said in an interview with RFE/RL.
"After the explosions, both Czech law enforcement and we ourselves had suspicions that it might not have been a coincidence," he said.
Gebrev did not immediately respond to phone calls and text messages from RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service seeking comment.
Despite announcing charges against the three Russians in January 2020, Bulgaria's prosecutor-general nine months later announced that the probe had been suspended, a move that raised eyebrows inside and outside Bulgaria.
Boyko Noev, a former defense minister who is known to be close to Gebrev, said the revelation highlighted major problems with the Bulgarian investigation.
"The latest findings in the Czech Republic bring up again the question: Why was the investigation of Gebrev's poisoning systematically hindered and finally stopped?" he said.
After stalling for nearly three years with insufficient evidence, the Czech investigation into the explosions gained new momentum after the 2018 Salisbury poisonings.
Czech relations with Moscow have been choppy in recent years, despite the open sympathies for Moscow by Czech President Milos Zeman.
Bilateral relations took a decided turn for the worse in early 2020, when Prague city officials dismantled a statue of a Russian World War II hero and renamed the square in front of the Russian Embassy after slain former Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov. The two countries exchanged heated rhetoric.
With the Czech Republic having one of the worst COVID-19 infection rates in Europe, the issue of acquiring the Russian Sputnik V vaccine has also divided the government in recent months.
It wasn't clear why the Czech authorities decided to move against Russia now, however, and make their allegations public.
The news magazine 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.
Czech government officials suggested that among the fallout from the scandal would be the tender to build a new 6 billion euro nuclear power plant. After the state energy group CEZ canceled a plan to build new reactors in 2014, the government has been entertaining bids from China, Russia, the United States, France, and other nations.
But Russia's involvement has been seen as problematic. Last November, a working group including intelligence officers and Foreign Ministry officials called for the government to bar Russia and China from the bidding, saying both posed a strategic risk.
On April 18, Deputy Prime Minister Karel Havlichek said the Russian state atomic agency Rosatom would not be allowed to participate.
The expulsion of the Russian diplomats follows the expulsion of other Russian diplomats from the United States, announced as part of major set of new sanctions aimed in part at pressuring Russia to back down from a buildup of troops on Ukraine's eastern borders.
While the Czech expulsions do not appear directly related to the U.S. expulsions, the Prague decision was quickly welcomed by the U.S. Embassy, which said in a post to Twitter late on April 17: "The United States stands with its steadfast ally, the Czech Republic. We appreciate their significant action to impose costs on Russia for its dangerous actions on Czech soil."
RFE/RL senior correspondent Mike Eckel and Bulgarian Service Director Ivan Bedrov reported from Prague; RFE/RL Ukrainian Service reporter Olha Kamarova reported from Kyiv.
Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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