Vrbetica, Czech Republic, 9.25am on October 16, 2014. Private ammunition depot number 16, managed by the Imex company, flies in an immense explosion that shakes buildings for miles around. The detonation completely destroys the place, destroys 58 tons of ammunition and kills two Imex employees on the spot; their bodies were only able to recover a month later. A few days ago, almost seven years later, the Czech Government revealed that Russia and its multipurpose military intelligence service (GRU), and more specifically the one known as unit 29155 – indicated by the attempted assassination of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom in 2018 – and at least two of its operatives, old acquaintances of Western intelligence, are behind the incident, which it has defined as a very serious act of sabotage.
The Vrbetica explosion, in which Moscow – which has called the Czech police revelations “fantasies” – denies any involvement, has triggered a new crisis with Russia when its relations with the West go through their worst moment since the Cold War. The Czech Republic (a member of the EU and NATO), and in solidarity, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, have ordered the expulsion of Russian diplomats, a significant number of them identified as undercover intelligence agents. A measure to which the Kremlin has reacted, as in a ping-pong match, returning the ball with its own expulsions.
The wave, which threatens the status of 88 Russian citizens in those countries, does not reach the answer to the caso Skripal, which resulted in the expulsion of 153 Russian officers. However, it comes at a time when the rope has already been tightened with other sanctions derived from the case of the opposition Alexei Navalni or the Russian electoral interference. Also after dark incidents uncovered in countries such as Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Denmark or Italy in which Russian intelligence has also been implicated. What started a week ago with the expulsion of 18 Russian officers from the Czech Republic, to which Moscow responded by giving 20 Czech officials less than 48 hours to leave the country, may turn out now, as Prague is moving to expand the list. in another 60 (between diplomats and mixed personnel), in the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats from a single country since the Cold War – in 1986 Ronald Reagan sent 80 Soviet emissaries home.
The case of ammunition depot 16, reminiscent of those Iron Curtain years, has once again revealed the reach of the tentacles of Moscow’s intelligence agencies and their Cold War techniques – now enriched with increasingly sophisticated cyber espionage work, ”says Vessela Tcherneva, deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in Bulgaria, a country that expelled two Russian diplomats on suspicion of espionage in February after exposing an alleged network of agents loyal to Moscow.
It has also focused on the so-called legal resident spiesIntelligence officers who are in the country under official cover, such as diplomats, for example, explains Jan Paďourek, former deputy director of the Czech Foreign Intelligence Service. “An old Soviet method that was often used during the Cold War and that the Russian intelligence services have not only not abolished, but are used in the Czech Republic and anywhere in the world,” remarks Paďourek (now at the Prague Center for Transatlantic Relations), who argues that the “latest hostile act” by the Russian secret services suggests broader European activity and also that the agencies are becoming increasingly “criminal and terrorist.”
The operation in Vrbetica aims to be one more piece of the puzzle that reflects the operations of the GRU, an agency known for acting with a war mentality, and of the elite sub-unit 29155, composed of about twenty people and assigned to special operations in the foreigner – with changing personnel and members of diverse capacities, from handling chemical weapons to cyber infiltrations. A group accused not only of the poisoning with Novichok of Sergei Skripal and his daughter; He is also implicated in a failed coup in Montenegro in 2016, in cyber attacks on anti-doping agency officials in Switzerland, in two assassination attempts in Bulgaria and is being investigated by the Spanish National Court for his presence in Catalonia during the process.
The Czech police, who have reactivated the case with clues obtained thanks to the caso Skripal, is now looking for Aleksandr Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, two GRU operatives, members of Unit 29155 and faces known to Western intelligence for their participation in the attack on the former Russian spy on British soil in 2018, which uncovered their real identities. Reconstruction of the case made by the investigative medium The Insider with open sources and intelligence indicates that the GRU spies, who entered the Czech Republic with passports from Moldova and Tajikistan, did not act alone, but that it was they who, posing as potential buyers, contacted Vrbetica’s storage company Imex , in which part of his material was stored by the Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev. But the businessman, who received the offer from third parties, was not interested in either the meeting proposal or the deal. Within two days of that interaction, ammunition depot number 16 was blown up.
In that warehouse, says Viktor Jahun, former vice president of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) at that time, part of the defense material that Kiev aspired to buy could be stored. The Donbas war had just broken out with pro-Russian separatists supported politically and militarily by the Kremlin and Ukraine, to avoid the shortage of ammunition in the midst of the conflict, it had set out to find potential vendors, explains Jahun. “Given the use of Soviet-made artillery systems, the search focused on the secondary market of the Eastern countries and the former partners of the Warsaw Pact,” the former senior SBU official comments in writing. Bulgaria was one of them, confirms Jahun. And specifically Emco, Emilian Gebrev’s company, as the Bulgarian merchant has ended up admitting these days to The New York Times. The businessman stored in that Czech warehouse material to send to Ukraine. “The blast and other similar actions by Russian military intelligence were aimed at preventing timely handover to the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” Jahun believes.
A year after the Vrbetica explosion, Unit 29155 tried to poison Gebrev at a fancy restaurant in Sofia, according to the Bulgarian prosecution. Months later he would try again without success.
Prague, base of operations
Russia regards Eastern Europe as an area of special interest. And Czech counterintelligence services have remarked for years in their reports that the Russian diplomatic mission in Prague and other cities is a big niche for Moscow’s espionage. They estimate that around 50% of the staff are members of one of their agencies. Russian intelligence services are “very active” in the Czech Republic, notes Jan Paďourek, former number two of the Czech Foreign Intelligence Service, where they have focused primarily on “cyber activities, spreading fake news and other forms of hybrid warfare.” But they do not only operate in that country, remarks the expert. “Their [espías] residents in Prague they probably covered other European countries as well. This is also the reason for the relatively high presence of Russian intelligence officers in the Czech Republic, ”adds Paďourek. In the Russian diplomatic missions in that eastern country (of 10 million inhabitants) there are around a hundred officers, including diplomats and employees; twice as many as the United States, according to Czech data.
Sabotage, assassination attempts. Bulgarian analyst Vessela Tcherneva points out that the latest revelations show the scale of Russian intelligence activities in Europe. But also that the ineffective or scant response at the time from the authorities, for example from Bulgaria in the case of the poisonings of the arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, has made them act with more daring and a sense of impunity. And more taking into account the usually good relations between Moscow and Sofia. “It seems they have no need to hide so much. And this must change, also the security of the special facilities ”, says the expert, who highlights the reaction and the wave of expulsions from the Czech Republic and several of its NATO allies.
The case threatens to continue escalating, now that the new expulsions of Russian diplomats are taking place. The Russian Foreign Ministry has reiterated that the measures will not go unanswered. “They know it well and must be aware that we will be consistent,” said the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, María Zajárova, “the more actions and destructive steps they take, the more they will receive in return.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.