Czechs blame 2014 explosions in ammunition depots against elite Russian spy unit
The Czech Republic on Saturday attributed a series of mysterious 2014 explosions in Czech ammunition depots to an elite unit of the Russian military intelligence service – a group that Britain has linked to a 2018 attack with a nerve agent against a former Russian spy in Salisbury, England.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis told a press conference in Prague that his government would respond by expelling 18 Russian diplomats, whom he had identified as spies. He said there was “clear evidence”, assembled by the Czech intelligence and security services, showing “reasonable suspicions” that the Russian group, known as Unit 29155, had been involved in the attacks. explosions in late 2014, which killed two Czechs.
The announcement underscored the scale of Russia’s efforts to expand its influence and take aggressive actions around the world, including military-style operations, assassinations and cyber attacks.
Russia’s elite unit has been operating for at least a decade, focusing on subversion, sabotage and assassination beyond Russia’s borders. It first appeared after the March 2018 attack in Salisbury, England, on a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, using the nerve agent Novichok. Both fell seriously ill but recovered later.
Britain blamed the attack on Salisbury on Russian military intelligence, known as GRU, and identified two of its agents, who were traveling under false names like Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, as the main suspects.
As the Prime Minister spoke in Prague, the Czech National Police’s Organized Crime Unit released its own statement, claiming that two Russian men using the same names were wanted for an unspecified “serious crime” and were known to have been in the Czech Republic – including the Zlin region, where ammunition depots exploded – from October 11-16, 2014, when the first explosion occurred.
Czech police also posted photographs of the two, which looked like the men depicted in the photographs released in 2018 by Britain. Police said the men used at least two different identities and asked anyone who saw them or who knew anything about their movements in the Czech Republic to call a hotline.
Mr Babis, the prime minister, did not directly accuse the two Russians of being involved in the explosions at the weapons warehouse, but said there was “unequivocal evidence” that officers working for Russian military intelligence had been involved.
“The Czech Republic is a sovereign state and must react accordingly to these unprecedented revelations,” added Mr. Babis.
The NATO member Czech Republic has expelled Russian diplomats in the past but never ordered so many as on Saturday. The expulsions came just days after Washington expelled 10 Russian diplomats for meddling in last year’s US presidential election and hacking into computer systems used by government agencies.
Poland, another NATO member, has also expelled Russian diplomats in recent days, ordering three of them to leave on Thursday in what Warsaw called a gesture of “solidarity” with the United States.
Czech action, however, has been more severe and unusually sweeping.
“I am sorry that Czech-Russian relations are suffering, but the Czech Republic must react,” Interim Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek said in Prague.
What caused the explosion of the ammunition depot, which started in the village of Vlachovice and resumed at a nearby depot in December 2014, has never been fully explained.
They coincided with Ukraine’s efforts to increase its arms supply from abroad as it struggled to reclaim eastern territory seized by Russian-backed rebels in the summer of 2014.
Czech media reports on Saturday also linked the explosions to what they said was a Russian push to stop the delivery of Czech-made weapons to forces fighting in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, a relative. ally of Moscow.