Czechs expel Russian envoys, alleging Kremlin role in deadly 2014 blast
The accusations have threatened relations between the two countries.
PRAGUE — The Czech government is expelling 18 Russian diplomats after concluding Moscow’s military intelligence service was involved in a massive 2014 explosion at an ammunition warehouse that killed two people.
The dramatic accusations have almost instantly threatened to destabilize the relationship between Russia and the Czech Republic, which broke away from the Soviet Union in 1989.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš late Saturday said the government had “clear evidence” that officers from “unit 29155 of the Russian military intelligence service GRU” had been involved in blowing up the ammunition depots at the Vrbětice complex.
The 18 expelled Russian embassy personnel had been identified by Czech intelligence as members of Russia’s GRU and SVR intelligence services.
“The Czech Republic is a sovereign state and must respond accordingly to these unprecedented findings,” Babiš said. He added that the country’s president, Miloš Zeman, who is close to the Kremlin, had been informed of the situation and had expressed his “absolute support.”
At the same time, Czech police announced they were searching for two Russian men in connection with the explosion, claiming the duo had used passports with the same names as the passports used by suspects in the attempted 2018 poisoning in Britain of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal.
The Czech weekly Respekt reported the two Russian agents, named as Anatoly Chepig and Alexander Mishkin, were in the Czech Republic and probably on the site of the ammunition depot in October 2014 when the deadly blast took place.
According to Czech police, the two men used two Russian passports as well as a Moldovan and Tajikistan passport while in the Czech Republic.
Babiš said he had spoken about the case with the European Council President Charles Michel and would inform EU partners in detail at the next formal leaders’ summit, scheduled for late June.
Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamáček, who is also interim foreign minister, said on Twitter Sunday that he had instructed the country’s EU and NATO ambassadors to inform allies, adding that he would discuss the case on Monday at a meeting of the EU’s foreign ministers.
The expulsion of the Russian diplomats comes just days after Poland said it had kicked out three Russian diplomats for “activities detrimental” to the country, and the U.S. expelled 10 Russian diplomats over the Kremlin’s alleged election interference and hacking of federal agencies.
The crisis has already had a wider impact of Czech-Russian relations. Hamáček said he had cancelled a trip to Moscow to negotiate the purchase of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine for use once the European Medicines Agency has signed off.
In addition, Industry and Trade Minister Karel Havlíček told Radiožurnál that the case could disqualify the Russian energy company Rosatom from bidding on a contract to build a new unit for the Doukovany nuclear power plant — the largest government contract in Czech history at €7.67 billion.
“Any such act, if finally confirmed, must have clear consequences,” he said.
Information from the security services, he added, “will certainly be the basis for deciding who will be invited to the tender.”