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Is Russia behind the 2014 Czech munition depot blasts?

Keno Verseck
April 20, 2021

Czech authorities say Russian agents are to blame for two blasts that rocked a munitions depot in 2014. Some have called this Russian "state terrorism." What are the political repercussions?

Russian embassy in Prague
"Killer, thief, dictator" scrawled on a poster featuring an image of Putin at the Russian embassy in PragueImage: Petr David Josek/AP Photo/picture alliance

Last Friday, human rights activists installed a paper maché effigy of Russian president Vladimir Putin outside Russia's sprawling embassy in the Czech capital, Prague. It depicted the leader sitting naked on a golden toilet, golden toilet brush in hand, with a bottle of cleaning agent labeled "Novichok" beside him. A nearby protest banner, meanwhile, accused Putin of being a "Murderer, Thief, Dictator." Protesters had turned out to show their solidarity with jailed Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny — and mock Putin's gargantuan Black Sea luxury villa.

The next day, Czech prime minister Andrej Babis announced that two major 2014 explosions at a munition depot in the country's southeast which left two dead had been traced back to Russian operatives. He said the blasts had been conducted by Russia's GRU military intelligence service. Czech authorities proceeded to expel 18 Russian diplomats. Authorities also called for the arrest of two GRU agents suspected of involvement in the 2014 explosions. They are the same two men involved in the 2018 poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in London.

The Russian government dismissed the accusations, with the foreign ministry branding them "absurd." In a tit for tat move, Russia expelled 20 Czech diplomats — almost its entire embassy staff.  

Act of aggression

Revelations surrounding the 2014 blasts sparked outrage and a veritable political earthquake in the Czech Republic. Interior Minister Jan Hamacek, who is also the country's acting foreign minister, called off a scheduled visit to Moscow where he had planned to discuss a deal to buy the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. High-ranking opposition lawmakers, among them Civic Democratic Party (ODS) leader Petr Fiala, called Putin's actions "Russian state terrorism." And Prime Minister Babis announced he would discuss how to proceed against Russia with EU and NATO officials.

Media pundits and political analysts agree this is a grave affair. Indeed, Jakub Janda of the European Values Center for Security Policy, a Prague-based think tank, told DW the bombings mark the "most hostile attack on Czech territory since the Soviet invasion of 1968."

Russian troll factories, mafia

Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and former advisor to former President Vaclav Havel, argues referring to Russian conduct as "state terrorism" is justified. "Unfortunately," he says, "Russia's hostile activities in the Czech Republic go well beyond these actions." Pehe says "thousands of Russian 'business people' work for the Russian state, troll factories and the Russian mafia." He says the Russian embassy in Prague is completely oversized, with a staff over more than 100 people. "We don‘t know what half of them actually do."

Although the Czech government claims to have "hard evidence" Russian GRU agents conducted the October and December 2014 blasts at the Vrbetice arms depot, certain aspects of the affair remain shrouded in mystery.

It was by mistake that the weapons and munitions in question exploded on Czech soil. Apparently, they were destined for export to Ukraine or Syria, a deal the Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev was meant to handle. In April 2015 he was poisoned and barely survived. It later emerged the Russian GRU was responsible for the attack.

Tchechien Politologe Jiří Pehe, Direktor der Prager Tochter der New York University
Jiri Pehe, a political scientist and long-time advisor to former President Vaclav Havel, argues referring to Russian conduct as "state terrorism" is justifiedImage: DW/A. M. Pedziwol

Clear timing

Czech media outlets have speculated over the timing of the ammunition depot explosion revelations. One thing, meanwhile, is for certain. Czech foreign policy will be not be same after this.

The EU state is deeply divided over its relationship with Moscow. President Milos Zeman, ridiculed by some commentators as "Russia's Prague ambassador" polarizes opinions. He has recognized the Crimean Peninsula as a "Russian territory," saying that Ukraine should now be compensated with Russian oil and gas.

Zeman under pressure

President Zeman's office announced he will comment on the delicate affair next Sunday. "This shows that the feels under pressure and has lost his political footing," says Jiri Pehe. The calls for him to be sacked are increasing, says Pehe, as "rumors exist according to which he knew about the details of the Vrbetice explosions and tried to sabotage the work of the Czech intelligence domestic security agency, BIS."

The country's Social Democrats — a junior coalition partner in the government alliance — are divided over Russia. Party leader Jan Hamacek recently dismissed his fellow party member Tomas Petricek from his job as foreign minister due to his cautious stance toward Russia and refusal to buy the Sputnik V vaccine.

Tschechien Ministerpräsident Andrej Babis
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis urged his country to maintain economic ties with RussiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Ctk/V. Simanek

Babis changes tack

Prime Minister Andrej Babis, of the populist ANO party, has urged his country to maintain economic ties with Russia — while avoiding Zeman's overtly pro-Russian stance. Babis has carefully weighed his words when commenting on the 2014 blasts. Unlike the opposition, he has avoided talking of "Russian state terrorism."

But with parliamentary elections coming up in a few months' time, he simply cannot remain silent on the issue. He must position himself, or risk seriously undermining his party's electoral chances.

Economic fallout

As far as next steps after the expulsion of the diplomats go, the Czech government is expected to announce that Russian company Rosatom will no longer be involved in expanding the country's Dukovany nuclear power plant. Security expert Janda thinks the country will now take a more "confrontational stance regarding act of Russian aggression."

And political scientist Pehe is certain that both the government and ordinary Czechs will now expect the EU to speak with a united voice and condemn Russia over the bombings — just as it spoke out after the Skripal poisoning in March 2018.