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The chaotic Czech answer to a Russian attack on its territory

RusiaCehia
©EPA-EFE/MARTIN DIVISEK  |   A sign reading 'Putin Go Home' is placed in the surroundings of the Russian embassy in Prague, Czech Republic, 22 April 2021.

April the 17th, 2021. The Czech media is increasingly nervous, as it waits for the start of an extraordinary press conference summoned by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and Jan Hamáček, the Minister of Interior who had just taken over the Foreign Affairs portfolio as well. The journalists know that something very unusual is happening.

Shortly before eight o'clock PM, the Prime Minister speaks: "There is a well-grounded suspicion of the involvement of officers from the Russian military intelligence service GRU, Unit 29155, in the explosion at the ammunition depot in the Vrbětice complex in 2014.”

Interim foreign minister Hamáček then announces the expulsion of 18 Russian GRU and SVR agents that were posing as diplomats.

This marked the beginning of the biggest crisis in Czech Republic-Russia relations in the past decade. It spun not only the spiral of mutual expulsions of diplomats, but also a struggle for control of the information space, where Moscow very quickly took the initiative – and the Czech politicians made it easier for the Russian regime.

The attack on Vrbětice, a sabotage aimed at Ukraine

The ammunition depot in Vrbětice in the east of the Czech Republic blew up for the first time on October 16, 2014. Fifty tons of ammunition were scattered far into the surroundings. Two employees of Imex Group company that stored ammunition in warehouses lost their lives.

Another explosion occurred on December the 3rd of the same year. The clearance of the site did not end until last autumn and costed about a billion CZK (38.8 million euros).

The Bellingcat investigation showed that at least six Russian military intelligence agents from unit 29155 participated in the attack. Two of them, Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, were also involved in Sergey Skripal’s poisoning. According to Czech authorities, the pair was in Czech Republic in mid-October 2014 and had asked to visit the warehouse under false names, at least four Russian military intelligence agents from unit 29155 had come in the Czech Republic. Two of them, Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, were also involved in Sergey Skripal’s poisoning. According to Czech authorities, the pair had asked to visit the warehouse under false names.

The government, police and prosecutors assure that the evidence against Russian agents is convincing. The GRU had a motive to do it: they wanted to sabotage weapons and ammunition supplies to Ukraine, which had recently lost Crimea and was involved in a war with Russian-backed rebels in the Donbass region. Bulgarian businessman Emilijan Gebrev – who would become a victim of a poisoning by suspected Russian agents – was supposed to deliver ammunition from Vrbětice to Ukraine. Recently, the Bulgarian prosecutor's office announced that it was investigating a group of Russian citizens in connection with an attempt to poison Gebrev and with the explosions of his ammunition depots in Bulgaria.

Prague’s failure to mobilize its allies

Shortly after Saturday's statement, members of the government, who describe the act as a terrorist attack committed on Czech territory, as well as diplomats, tried to persuade allies in the European Union and NATO to support the Czech Republic. During the coming days, Russian diplomats were expelled from five countries – Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Romania – as a sign of solidarity.

This hardly qualifies as a show of EU or NATO solidarity, but Prague is partially to blame: in order to get the world or/and its allies to act, it needs to present convincing evidence, but also to be clear about what it wants its allies to do.

This proved to be a little bit complicated. Acting Foreign Minister Hamáček failed to convince the country’s European allies to act, and there was even some confusion whether he asked for joint action of the member states or not.

"I was disappointed after Monday's meeting of foreign ministers. I expected the Czech side to say clearly what it wanted and get a clear answer. Since this did not happen, it is now up to the diplomats to meet with the member states,” said Věra Jourová, Vice-President of the European Commission for Values ​​and Transparency.

On top of that, officials in Prague failed to adopt a common position. Immediately after the government meeting on Monday, April 19, the Prime Minister himself downplayed Saturday's strong statement, assuring that it was not an act of state terrorism, but a "botched attack on goods".

President Miloš Zeman, who has ties to Russia, took his time before reacting, and when he did it he only added to the confusion. In his speech on Sunday, April 25, he supported the government's actions – the expulsion of 18 Russian spies – but also questioned the story that the prime minister and ministers had been presenting to citizens and foreign partners up to that point. Zeman claimed that, according to the counterintelligence service BIS, there was no evidence for the presence of agents on the ground. He also claimed that there was a second lead followed by investigators, that negligence was behind the explosion. He substantiated this claim by referring to a court hearing in 2016, which, according to him, dealt with the suspicion that the explosion was caused by unprofessional handling of ammunition. Zeman claimed that the court acquitted the accused employees of the company. However, it became clear that the court’s sentence had nothing to do with the explosion and that the president’s argument wasn’t true.

Zeman's claim about the existence of two different conclusions about what happened was also contradicted by Prime Minister Babiš and Interior Minister Hamáček. However, their reaction came more than 24 hours after the speech, as both politicians have political reasons to maintain good relations with the president. Moscow fully used this time to question the Czech’s initial version of the events, and Russian politicians even made strong statements that Prague should apologize.

Russia’s attempts to impose its own narrative

In contrast, Russia embarked on a campaign to control the information space – it denied its involvement in the incident, tried to defuse the public debate about the attack and openly attacked or insulted the Czech Republic.

Shortly after President Zeman's speech, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zacharova called on the Czech Republic to explain the suspicion that banned anti-personnel mines were being stored in Vrbetice. However, a court – the same court Zeman spoke about in false context – had established that there were no forbidden mines stored in Vrbětice. An allegation that had been rejected in a statement by the Czech Ministry of Defense as well.

However, Russia has since repeated the allegations several times. Moscow kept on asking for an explanation even if it is not a signatory of the Ottawa Convention, which prohibits the use or storage of anti-personnel mines.

The motif is obvious – to divert attention from the serious accusations that the Czech Republic has made against Moscow.

The narrative that illegal ammunition was stored in Vrbětice soon spread to the Czech disinformation media. For example, the pro-Russian Aeronet website wrote that, according to Russian sources, the explosion was caused by unprofessional dismantling of these mines. Of course, the Aeronet (or Russia) do not provide any evidence for these allegations.

Interestingly enough, the fake information about the second lead first surfaced on the pro-Russian-oriented platform Parlamentní listy. It is thus very probable that Zeman – who does not hide his affection for this website – got this false information right here. After the president’s speech, the fake news spread again to other similar media, who thus questioned the version described by the government.

A chaotic Czech answer

In addition, the Czech position is weakened by a complicated political situation. Several days before the announcement of Russia's involvment in the Vrbětice explosion, the chairman of the Social Democratic Party and Interior Minister Hamáček removed Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček, who had profiled himself as firmly pro-Western and was one of Russia’s critics. Moreover, on April the 14th, Hamáček, who temporarily replaced Petříček in office, announced his intention to fly to Moscow on April 19, to buy Sputnik V vaccine (the visit was cancelled on the 16th). It is obvious that when all these decisions were announced, Hamáček and other key government officials already had information about what happened in Vrbětice. (Hamáček later claimed that he never intended to fly to Russia and that it was all a cover-up maneuver.)

And so, while on Saturday, April 17, Hamáček announced the first expulsion of Russian diplomats, the next steps were announced on Wednesday by new Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhánek, who served as Hamáček's deputy at the Ministry of the Interior.

And then, at a time when the government was asking European partners and the European Union for solidarity, Prime Minister Babiš, who is also one of the richest Czech businessmen, accused the European Commission of manipulation. The reason of this attack – On Friday, April 23, EU published an unfavorable audit of his conflict of interest.

As already mentioned, only a few countries have supported the Czech Republic by taking real action – the expulsion of Russian diplomats. First of all, Slovakia, which is the Czech Republic‘s closest foreign partner, then the three Baltic countries and Romania. The "big" members of the European Union or Great Britain (which the Czech Republic supported by expelling three Russian diplomats after the poisoning of Sergey Skripal, by some of the agents involved in the Czech attack, have not yet reacted more forcefully.

No wonder. Even Czech Republic find it hard to understand what happened due to the poor government communication, so foreign allies must be completely lost. Consider the whole picture. The Prime Minister and the President came out with contradicting narratives and, moreover, the premier even downplayed his own statement several days after making it.  Prime Minister after few days downplays his own statement. At such a critical moment, the foreign minister is replaced. The Deputy Prime Minister, who temporarily replaced him, plans a visit to Moscow although he already knows that his country has been the target of an unprecedented attack by the very country he plans to visit. Moreover, on Tuesday, April the 27th, Hamáček appointed as his deputy at the Ministry of the Interior a politician, who supported nationalist Russian bikers, Night Wolves. And to make it even more confusing, the Minister of Justice Marie Benešová stated that there are not only two, but more investigative versions.

In addition, Russia has started its propaganda machinery and is certainly using other, less visible tools to discourage European countries from reacting.

The Czech government is not alone in this crisis. But, at the same time, it is clear that, at least for now, its allies are not rushing to show their support, not for as long as they are not convinced. And for the time being, Prague is having a hard time even to convince a part of its own population, which is historically inclined to Russia and even now does not perceive Moscow as a threat.

 


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  • The Czech Republic has announced that it is expelling 18 Russian diplomats, following the sabotage of an ammunition depot by Moscow’s agents. The measure seems to have been taken without consulting all the domestic key players or Prague’s Western partners: in the days that followed, both the lack of cohesion of the state authorities and the hesitations of external partners to show solidarity were apparent.
  • Members of the government, who describe the act as a terrorist attack committed on Czech territory, as well as diplomats, tried to persuade allies in the European Union and NATO to support the Czech Republic. During the coming days, Russian diplomats were expelled from five countries – Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Romania – as a sign of solidarity. This hardly qualifies as a show of EU or NATO solidarity, but Prague is partially to blame: in order to get the world or/and its allies to act, it needs to present convincing evidence, but also to be clear about what it wants its allies to do.
  • In contrast, Russia embarked on a campaign to control the information space – it denied its involvement in the incident, tried to defuse the public debate about the attack and openly attacked or insulted the Czech Republic.
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