President Vladimir Putin on Monday (26 April) dismissed as “absurd” Prague’s accusations against Moscow after Czech authorities accused the Russian secret services of being behind a deadly arms depot blast in 2014. But the investigative website Bellingcat connected the dots back to Russia.
In a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin “commented on the current state of Russian-Czech relations, emphasising the absurd nature of Prague’s accusations and actions against Russia”, the Kremlin said in a statement.
Tensions have escalated between the two countries after Prague accused Russian military intelligence earlier this month of being behind the explosion in the east of the Czech Republic, which left two people dead.
Czech police are seeking two men in connection with the blast, along with a second non-fatal explosion in the Czech Republic in 2014.
The men have also been identified as suspects in the 2018 poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English town of Salisbury in 2018.
As the Czech authorities pointed out, the explosion in 2014 was not intended to happen in the Czech Republic, but in Bulgaria. The ammunition was supposed to be transported by Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev – a businessman who survived poisoning in 2015 – and sent to Ukraine or Syria.
Gebrev, his son Hristo and one more person were victims of a poisoning attempt back in 2015 with what turned out to be Novichok, but the prosecution opened an inquiry only in January 2000, following revelations by the investigative website Bellingcat, which found similarities with the Skripal poisoning three years later.
Bellingcat published another investigative report on Monday supporting the hypothesis that the 2014 explosions in Czechia were part of a longer-term operation of the Russian military intelligence GRU, aimed at disrupting Ukraine’s capabilities to procure weapons and munitions critical to its defense against Russian troops and Russia-sponsored militants in the war in Eastern Ukraine.
According to Bellingcat, the operation appears to have been initiated shortly after July 2014 when Russian authorities subordinated the disparate Russia-supported militant groups in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine under central control and military supervision of the GRU. The mission, which appears to have been run by the subversion and sabotage sub-unit of GRU’s Unit 29155, included several contiguous operations among which were the explosions at the Vrbetice depots, the assassination attempt on Emilian Gebrev, and – with increasing likelihood – at least one of the three explosions at munition depots in Bulgaria in early to mid-2015.
This version of events is reportedly corroborated by the overlap of the sabotage team in the Czech and Bulgarian operations; the team members’ contiguous assignments in the two countries; and the links to Gebrev’s company EMCO – an important factor in Ukraine’s defense strategy in 2014 and early 2015 – in both sets of operations. Moreover, telephone records analyzed by Bellingcat show that several members of Unit 29155 communicated actively with Russian military officers deployed to the Donbas, as well as with local militant commanders fighting against the central Kyiv government, in 2014 and 2015.
Motivation for the attack on the Czech depot
EMCO confirmed to Bellingcat that Ukraine imported its ammunition in the 120 mm to 152 mm range for Ukraine in the period December 2014 – February 2015, based on a contract signed on 10 November 2014.
Sources told Belligcat that EMCO was one of only two EU companies that specialized in manufacturing state-of-the-art munitions compatible with Soviet-era weapons, especially in the large-bore (120 mm to 152 mm) range. According to one of the sources, in 2014 there were only two manufacturing plants that produced compatible munitions, and “the other company was under effective Russian control”, leaving EMCO as the only possible foreign-based provider of munitions for Ukraine’s army.
According to Bellingcat a minimum of six senior GRU undercover agents from Unit 29155 – including its commander and two officers under diplomatic cover – were deployed to Central Europe to facilitate the mission.
Bulgarian investigators are convinced that on 28 April 2014, one of the GRU officers applied a Novichov-type substance to the door handles of cars used by Gebrev and his production director, Mr. Tahchiev. Emilian Gebrev’s son is likely to have been exposed to the toxin through incidental contact with his father’s car on that day. Investigators have not yet discovered how the toxin was brought into the country.
At least two of the participants, Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga, received Russia’s highest state award – Hero of Russia – and at least four team members received free apartments from the government in the immediate aftermath of the operation, further underpinning the importance of this mission to Russian authorities.