One Czech politician called claims Russia had been behind a deadly 2014 warehouse explosion ‘the largest attack on our territory since’ a Soviet invasion in 1968.
PRAGUE — The Czech Republic’s dramatic accusation that Russian intelligence agents were responsible for a deadly 2014 warehouse blast is threatening to destabilize relations between the two countries.
Already, the Czech government has announced it is expelling 18 Russian diplomats over the incident, which left two people dead. But more broadly, the country is showing hesitancy about some plans that would have brought the two countries closer.
When Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and Interior Minister Jan Hamáček laid out their findings in Prague late Saturday, Hamáček also announced he would not travel to Moscow this week, as planned, to negotiate the purchase of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. In addition, Industry and Trade Minister Karel Havlíček said Sunday that the Russian energy company Rosatom would likely be excluded from bidding on a contract to build the Doukovany nuclear power plant a new unit — the largest government contract in Czech history, at €7.67 billion.
And within the country, there’s a push from some corners for a more general distancing between the two countries, three decades after the Czech Republic left the Soviet Union. Some are even harkening back to the moment the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, putting an end to a brief period of liberalization.
“This was the largest attack on our territory since 1968,” said Ondřej Veselý, chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee.
Petr Kolář, former Czech ambassador to both Russia and the United States, called on Prague to keep future relations with the Kremlin to a minimum.
“We will leave only the ambassador, the consul and the most necessary staff in Moscow, and we will want the same for the Russians here in the Czech Republic,” he told the news service Deník.
The crisis over the 2014 explosion kicked into overdrive late Saturday, when Babiš said the Czech intelligence service had uncovered “clear evidence” that created a “reasonable suspicion” that officers from Russia’s GRU military intelligence service had caused the explosions of two ammunition depots in the southeastern town of Vrbětice in October 2014.
Czech intelligence officials had also identified the 18 expelled Russian embassy personnel as members of the Russian GRU and SVR services.
“The Czech Republic is a sovereign state and must respond accordingly to these unprecedented findings,” the Czech prime minister said. He added that the country’s president, Miloš Zeman, who is close to the Kremlin, had been informed of the situation and expressed his “absolute support.”
At the same time, Czech police announced they were still searching for two Russian men in connection with the explosions, noting they had used passports with the same names as the passports used by suspects in the 2018 attempted assassination in Britain of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal.
The Czech weekly Respekt reported that the two Russian agents, named as Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, were in the Czech Republic and probably on the site of the ammunition depot in October 2014 when the deadly explosion took place.
According to Czech police, the two men used the two Russian passports as well as a Moldovan and Tajikistan passport while in the Czech Republic.
Respekt also reported that the depots targeted by the Russians belonged to a Bulgarian arms dealer who was selling weapons to the Ukrainian interior ministry and National Guard, whose members fought in the war in Donbas against pro-Russian separatists.
A historic moment
The crisis is inspiring some Czech politicians, like Veselý, to recall the more than 40 years of Soviet control of the country. In 1968, Soviet Union armies invaded Czechoslovakia to stop a brief attempt under Alexander Dubček’s leadership to relax severe Soviet-era restrictions.
Two decades later, the country rose up against the Communist government in December 1989 and put an end to Soviet domination, led by dissident and former Czech President Václav Havel.
The Czech announcement comes as relations between Moscow and the West have grown increasingly tense.
On Thursday, Poland said it had kicked out three Russian diplomats for “activities detrimental” to the country. That same day, the United States expelled 10 Russian diplomats and imposed sanctions against several dozen individuals and companies over the Kremlin’s alleged election interference and hacking of federal agencies.
And looming over everything is Russia’s military build-up along its border with Ukraine, leaving Western allies fearing a possible invasion may be on the horizon, evoking Moscow’s decision to annex Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014.
The Czech ambassador to NATO, Jakub Landovský, said the Czech government will ask to discuss Russia’s role in the Czech warehouse blast at the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s principal political decision-making body. This could take place as early as Tuesday.
In addition, Babiš said that he had spoken about the case with the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, and would inform EU partners in detail at the next summit.
Hamáček, who is also interim foreign minister, said on Twitter Sunday that he would discuss the issue on Monday at the meeting of the EU foreign ministers.
The Czechs received messages of support and solidarity from a number of allies throughout Sunday, including the United States.
“The United States stands with its steadfast Ally, the Czech Republic,” the U.S. Embassy in Prague tweeted. “We appreciate their significant action to impose costs on Russia for its dangerous actions on Czech soil.”
In addition, Czech EU Commissioner Věra Jourová tweeted: “In situations like this, strong and reliable partnerships are more needed than ever.”
Russia is expected to retaliate in kind to the expulsions. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the Czech decision to expel the diplomats “tricks,” and told reporters in Moscow, “Prague is well aware of what will follow such tricks.”