The diplomatic-espionage scandal between Russia and the Czech Republic is gaining momentum. Last week, the new head of the Czech Foreign Ministry, Jakub Kulhánek, demanded that the Russian embassy in Prague reduce its staff to the number of Czech diplomats remaining in Moscow, announcing the expulsion of another 63 Russian embassy staff. A few days earlier the Czech Republic already had expelled 18 members of the Russian Embassy in Prague on suspicion that members of Russian intelligence services had taken part in the explosion at an ammunition depot in 2014. Moscow retaliated with the expulsion of 20 diplomats – more than half of the personnel of the Czech Embassy in Russia.
The ubiquitous “Petrov and Boshirov”
As revealed by Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš at an emergency press conference on 17 April, “there is a well-founded basis to suspect” that the secret military intelligence unit, GRU No. 29155 took part in the explosions at the ammunition supply depot in Vrbetitsa which resulted in the deaths of two local residents. In this instance, the primary suspects in the organization of the explosion are the infamous “tourists from Salisbury,” Aleksandr Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, better known under the names Petrov and Boshirov. These were the names they used 7 years ago to enter the Czech Republic while at the same time covering themselves for part of the journey as citizens of Moldova and Tajikistan Nikolay Popa and Ruslan Tabarov.
According to information from the Czech publication Respekt, Chepiga and Mishkin received permission to visit the ammunition depot in Vrbetitsa from 13 to 17 Oct. 2014. The explosion at the ammunition depot # 16 took place on Oct. 16, and the second explosion at the warehouse # 12 on Dec. 3. As noted by the publication, police still have no direct proof that both Russians physically entered the depot, although this hypothesis is considered most likely, especially taking into consideration the fact that during the above-mentioned period the warehouses were used by the Imex Group, which is owned by Bulgarian businessman Yemelyan Gebrev. According to a Bellingcat investigation, in 2015 Russian intelligence organized the assassination attempt on Gebrev, as well as his son and colleague, because the businessman was involved in the supply of weapons to Ukraine. Now, “Boshirov and Petrov” are on the Czech Republic’s wanted list.
For their part, Russian media are presenting the actions of Prague as a provocation organized by Washington to take place at the same time as the imposition of new American sanctions. According to them, there were several immediate goals: nullifying the ability of the Russian company Rosatom to win the tender for the completion of the Dukovany nuclear power plant; disrupting the Czech Republic’s planned purchase of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, and “diverting attention” away from the alleged conspiracy to assassinate Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko. Their main argument is that information about the seven-year-old crime has only now surfaced, and mainly that the scandal has led to a sharp deterioration of Russian-Czech relations.
A fatal leak
As well-known Czech journalist and author of the Respekt investigation Ondřej Kundra explained, the emergence of new information on the explosions in Vrbetica at this time is quite understandable and has nothing to do with the sanctions imposed by the United States against Moscow.
“Don’t forget that information about Mishkin and Chepiga appeared in the public space only after their attempt to poison Sergey Skripal in Salisbury. It was only then that their appearance and the pseudonyms “Boshirov and Petrov” became known. Before then, these names meant nothing to the investigation, and therefore it was difficult to link them to the explosions,” explained the journalist.
Still another factor that influenced the timing of the results of the investigation, according to Ondřej Kundra, was the new person in charge of investigating the explosions. The new investigator collated copies of the passports provided when requesting permission to visit the warehouse with the information obtained by the UK about Boshirov and Petrov and realized that it was the failed Salisbury assassins who visited the warehouse on the days when the explosion occurred.
For our part, we add that the timing of the disclosure of the information also may be attributed to internal political reasons. In particular, Czech President Milos Zeman, who has the reputation as “the most pro-Russian politician in Europe,” on 12 April succeeded in forcing the resignation of former Foreign Minister, Tomáš Petříček, who held a strongly pro-Western position and opposed the early licensing of the Sputnik V vaccine in the Czech Republic, as well as Russia’s participation in the tender for the construction of a new nuclear power plant reactor. His post was taken by Jan Hamáček, who was planning a trip to Moscow on the very day when the investigation results were leaked to the media.
The “ricin” scandal
This was not the first time Czech counterintelligence had leaked information about inimical Russian activities to the press. Exactly one year ago, Respekt reported that a man bearing a diplomatic passport arrived in Prague with a briefcase containing the deadly poison ricin. According to the report, the poison was intended for Czech politicians whose activities had aroused the ire of Moscow, namely the mayor of Prague’s District 6, Ondřej Kolar who decided to dismantle the monument of Soviet Commander Ivan Konev, and Prague mayor Zdenek Grzhiba, whose administration renamed the square in front of the Russian Embassy in honor of murdered Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Not long after, the name of the ill-fated diplomat appeared – it turned out to be the acting head of the Russotrudnichestvo office in the Czech Republic, Andrey Konchakov, who, according to media reports, is an FSB officer.
In that instance, the scandal came to an unexpected conclusion: On June 5, 2020 Andrej Babiš and Tomáš Petříček announced at a press conference a decision to declare two Russian diplomates persona non grata – Andrey Konchadov and his colleague Igor Rybakov, accused of signing a false denunciation against his colleague. However, such an explanation did not satisfy several Czech journalists and public figures who were confident that no false denunciation existed and that the information about the planned assassination attempt was real and came from reliable sources.
There are several factors supporting this version. First, according to Babiš, one of the two diplomats must be innocent, and so the reason he was declared a “persona non grata” is unclear.
Second, according to open sources, the information about the planned assassination came from several different sources, and by no means was attributable to a single anonymous denunciation. Contrary to the popular version, the name of Andrey Konchakov appeared first in the British investigative center “Dossier” on May 10, and not in the Czech media. At the same time, the British did not refer to the Czech media, but rather to data on the border control database in Moscow, which at least suggests the existence of other sources of information. Czech journalists also declared in an interview with TV channel “Current Time” that information on the involvement of a diplomat in a murder attempt was received and confirmed from various, independent sources.
Third, the reaction of Czech intelligence does not correspond to the version about an anonymous source. The speed with which the victims of the alleged assassination were provided with protection, and how seriously they themselves took the threat, suggest that the source was trustworthy in the eyes of the Czech counterintelligence service, BIS.
Nor does the subsequent expulsion of Rybakov fit into this version. If the latter really had something to do with Russian intelligence and came into contact with the counterintelligence of a NATO country, this could become the basis for subsequent recruitment rather than expulsion accompanied by a public scandal. Fourth, Rybakov, if he really had experience in intelligence, would hardly have taken such a risk to settle scores with a colleague.
This opinion is shared by Czech resident Andrey Kurochkin – a Russian dissident and Director of the Prague branch of the American organization, Free Russia Foundation. He opines that Moscow and Prague agreed to hush up the story by coming up with a version of a false denunciation.
“It was a profoundly serious scandal, and one gets the impression that they wanted to cover it up by reducing it to a quarrel between two diplomats. In fact, the situation is much more serious because it would not otherwise have led to such a level of tension, leading to lengthy negotiations, and such a strange decision in the end,” he said.
Experts cite the close ties of some government officials to Russia as the reason the Czech authorities would have agreed to such a compromise option. President Miloš Zeman, for example, often repeated Kremlin propaganda, denied the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine, argued that Crimea was Russian, and demanded that the West lift sanctions imposed on Moscow. He also repeatedly publicly criticized the BIS security service for overestimating the danger of Russian activities in the Czech Republic.
Analysts link this position of the Czech President with his old connections with the Kremlin, including financial connections. At the beginning of May, the Ukrainian publication Gordon published an investigation of these ties, beginning with the scheme for the resale of Czech public debt offered by Russia to the firm Falkon Capital, which became essentially a mutually beneficial “cut” of Soviet debt. The investigation also includes the names of several Czech politicians and businessmen associated with Russia, including Zdenek Zbytek.
By the way, Zbytek, who is a close friend of Miloš Zeman and supported him in the elections, in an interview with the Czech media spoke positively about Andrei Konchakov, calling him “a great boy,” and for many years he himself rented an office in the same complex of buildings in Prague where the Russian Center for Science and Culture, headed by Konchakov is located.
“I rented premises from them for 23 years, and we know one another well. I have not forgotten who liberated our country. Together at this center we organize commemorative events for Czech and Russian veterans,” he explained. In a word, it was clearly not part of the plans of Czech leaders to destroy this long-term symbiosis on the basis of inconvenient information and its even more inconvenient leakage.
Meanwhile, Ondřej Kundra, who was the first to publish information about ricin, still believes in its authenticity. As the journalist said in a commentary, if the information received was true, the Czech police will continue to investigate the incident regardless of politicians’ assurances.
However, it seems that the new scandal cannot be covered up. As noted by Czech journalists, the staff of the Russian Embassy in Prague is made up of 120-125 diplomats and employees. Additionally, there are Consulates General in Brno and Karlovy Vary, and many employees of these establishments, according to Czech counterintelligence, are spies. It is entirely possible that one expulsion of diplomats may be followed by others. At the same time, Czech journalists find it difficult to predict Russia’s response in this instance, but it appears that none of the parties expects a quick resolution.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is a Russia expert and an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation.