The arms dealer in sight of the Russian elite assassination squad
For a great arms dealer, Emilian Gebrev cuts the modest figure of a perplexed grandfather, preferring soccer jerseys and polo shirts to suits and ties, driving his own car and insisting that he is from of little importance outside of his native Bulgaria.
But this week it became clear how important Mr. Gebrev is, at least to an elite team of Russian agents within the Kremlin’s military intelligence service.
Days after Czech authorities accused the assassination team, known as Unit 29155, of being behind a series of 2014 explosions at weapons depots that killed two people, Mr. Gebrev admitted that his supplies were stored in depots. And according to Czech officials, Mr. Gebrev’s actions were the target.
The revelation is a new and surprising development, given that authorities claim the group also made two attempts to kill Mr. Gebrev. In 2015, Bulgarian authorities say officers of the unit traveled to Bulgaria and poisoned him with a substance resembling the same Novichok nerve agent used against former spies and stubborn critics of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. . After the first attempt to kill him failed, they came back and poisoned him again.
There has always been uncertainty as to why the Russians were so determined to get Mr. Gebrev. Now the Czech case adds further evidence that the Kremlin was after it because of its business connections.
In an email to the New York Times, Mr Gebrev admitted that he was stockpiling ammunition at the Czech arms depot and admitted something he had long denied: that his company, Emco, had shipped military equipment into Ukraine after 2014, when the separatists supported by the Russian military and intelligence services began a war with Ukrainian forces.
The Russian team’s involvement in the explosions in the Czech Republic adds to a growing list of operations attributed to Unit 29155, and has further ignited an escalating standoff between Russia and the West.
On Thursday, the Czech government said it would expel up to 60 Russian diplomats in addition to the 18 it had already expelled from the country in response to the blasts, potentially dismantling Russia’s diplomatic presence in the country. Russia has promised to respond accordingly and has already expelled 20 officials from the Czech embassy in Moscow.
The coup de grace came just days after the United States announced it would expel 10 Russian diplomats and impose sanctions as punishment for a massive breach of the U.S. government’s computer systems that the White House blamed on the Russian foreign intelligence agency. It also coincided with the gathering of troops from Russia on the Ukrainian border, to partially withdraw this week.
For years, Unit 29155 operated in Europe even before Western intelligence agencies discovered it. A 2019 investigation by the New York Times revealed the purpose of the unit and showed that its officers had carried out the attempted assassination a year earlier of a former Russian spy named Sergei V. Skripal, who had been poisoned in Salisbury, England.
Many other examples of the unit’s manual labor have since been on display. Last year, The Times revealed a CIA assessment that officers in the unit may have carried out a covert operation to pay bounties to a network of criminal militants in Afghanistan in return for attacks on US troops and of the coalition.
Bulgarian prosecutors charged three officers from Unit 29155 with poisoning Mr. Gebrev in January 2020 and issued arrest warrants. They also released surveillance footage of one of the attackers apparently spreading poison on the door handles of cars belonging to Mr. Gebrev, his son and a senior official in a garage near their offices in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.
But Mr Gebrev wonders if the unit acted alone, suggesting that while Russian assassins were responsible for its poisoning, they were likely in cahoots with its enemies in Bulgaria.
In the summer and fall of 2019, I met Mr. Gebrev on several occasions and even visited one of his munitions factories near a Bulgarian town called Montana, where mortar shells from different sizes are packed in green boxes and shipped worldwide. He never revealed his connection to the Czech attacks and only spoke reluctantly about the two times he was poisoned.
“If it’s gossip in the newspapers, I’m not going to talk about it,” he said at the start of one of our meetings.
Mr Gebrev was also hesitant to discuss his company’s relations with Ukraine. At first, he said he stopped all exports of ammunition to the country at the start of the war in 2014. But on Friday he admitted that Emco had signed a contract with “authorized Ukrainian companies” late. 2014 after the start of the war. In a previous email, Gebrev insisted that the weapons stored in Czech depots had not been destined for Ukraine.
A current and former Ukrainian official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified military information, said Emco signed a contract in 2014 to supply artillery ammunition to the Ukrainian military. To prevent Russian supporters of the Bulgarian government from blocking shipments, the ammunition boxes were labeled as if they were destined for Thailand, the former official said. (Mr Gebrev has denied that his company mislabeled any of its exports.)
The Russian government still discovered the shipments, according to the former official, and pressured the Bulgarian government to end it.
Providing military assistance to the Ukrainian government at any time since 2014 would have played with fire.
After pro-democracy protesters toppled the Kremlin puppet government there, Russian special forces units wearing unmarked uniforms seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula and also sparked a separatist uprising that still continues in the ‘is. Meanwhile, Russian assassins have spread across the country, killing senior Ukrainian military and intelligence officials who were at the heart of the war effort, according to Ukrainian officials.
At a press conference this week, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babis, said the explosions were “an unprecedented attack on Czech soil”, but clarified that the real target was not his. country but “goods belonging to a Bulgarian arms dealer. “
The explosions, which took place in October and December 2014, were initially attributed to a technical malfunction. It is not known how, seven years later, the Czech authorities concluded that the explosions were acts of Russian sabotage.
Czech security officials have identified two suspects, who they say arrived in the country just before the first explosion and visited the depot near the town of Vrbetice, posing as buyers for the Tajik army. The false names they used to enter the facility, Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, were the same ones used four years later by the two men who poisoned Mr Skripal in Salisbury.
The Czech Republic has long been a staging area for Russian intelligence operations, Western security experts say. The Russian Embassy in the capital Prague is one of the country’s largest in Europe. All 18 embassy officials expelled by the Czech government to date in response to the blasts are believed to be spies.
A person from the embassy, Viktor Budyak, received his accreditation in early 2020 to serve as a deputy military attaché. He had previously served as a senior officer in Unit 29155 and was likely involved in supporting the unit’s activities in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Eastern Europe in recent years, according to a European security official who followed the career. by Mr. Budyak.
There are indications that the mission was a top priority for the Kremlin. Using travel records, the investigation organization Determined bellingcat that Major General Andrei V. Averyanov, commander of unit 29155, went under cover to Vienna a few days before the blasts and possibly drove to the Czech Republic to the city of Ostrava where, according to Czech authorities, men using the names of Petrov and Boshirov remained during the operation.
The fact that Russian spies carry out military-style sabotage operations outside of war has shaken many in Europe.
“I think for public opinion, not only in the Czech Republic, but for others in the European Union, it is shocking,” said David Stulik, senior analyst at the European Value Center for Security Policy based in Prague. “It highlights the way Russia treats our countries.”
Boryana Dzhambazova contributed reporting from Sofia, Bulgaria and Hana de Goeij from Prague.