Russian State Terrorism Has Triggered the Biggest Fallout with the Czech Republic since 1989
The Czech Republic has become a target of Russian state terrorism which goes far beyond the Salisbury incident. Indeed, this appalling crime holds two terrifying primacies.
First, it is the biggest attack on the country in its history.
Second, it is the most violent breach of the sovereignty of the EU and NATO members since the end of the Cold War.
In 2014, agents of the Russian military intelligence services GRU caused a massive explosion of 58 tons of ammunition in the Vrbětice ammunition depot area, killing two Czech citizens, threatening the safety of hundreds of people in the nearby villages, and causing damages in tens of millions of euros.
Arms and ammunition at the depot were destined for either Ukrainian forces fighting pro-Russian rebels or for rebels in Syria fighting the Russian-backed government.
Shocking details of the incident were shared with the public by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and acting Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Hamáček on Saturday last week. President Miloš Zeman, on the contrary, took his time to comment on the Vrbětice affair. A week later, he undermined the credibility of the evidence about the GRU’s involvement presented by the Czech secret services. The president is, however known to be one of the most prominent supporters of the Kremlin in Europe.
The Czech Republic’s partners and allies, including the rest of the Visegrad 4 countries, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Baltic countries, have condemned Russia’s actions and have expressed their immediate support. Slovakia, Romania, and the Baltic countries have even expelled Russian diplomats to show solidarity with Prague. Poland and Bulgaria are considering doing the same.
Similarly, the EU and NATO stand firmly behind the Czechs following statements by High-Representative Josep Borrell and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The coordinated response is being heavily discussed on both international platforms.
Escalation of the Conflict
In response to the appalling crime, Prague has expelled 18 members of the Russian embassy identified spies from either GRU or the foreign intelligence services SVR.
At least half of the expelled Russians held high positions, among others First Secretary and former spokesperson Alexey Kolmakov, who was very active in the Koněv affair, and First Secretary and Deputy Chief of Mission Alexandr Antonov, also known as “the man with ricin” in the similarly named affair.
This number might seem high, and indeed it is the boldest act of resistance against Russian bullying since 1989. Nevertheless, it must be viewed in a broader context.
First, the number is lower than in the case of the Salisbury incident when, after an attempted assassination of former double agent Sergey Skripal, London has expelled 23 Russian diplomats.
Secondly, the Russian embassy in Prague has 129 employees, half of whom are considered to be members of the Russian intelligence services.
The Russians have already flown out of the Czech Republic, leaving the embassy with 28 diplomats and 71 regular employees (and another 10 in consulates in Brno and Karlovy Vary).
Unfortunately, the Kremlin has escalated the tension by expelling 20 Czechs (including 16 diplomats) from the Czech embassy in Moscow, which holds all together 58 employees: 26 diplomats and 32 staffers. With only ten diplomats left, the function of the Czech embassy is set to be paralyzed.
Thus, on Wednesday evening, Russia was given an ultimatum to allow the return of the Czech diplomats back to Moscow. Otherwise, Prague will decrease the numbers in the Russian embassy to be equal to the number of people in its Czech counterpart in Moscow (which would under current conditions mean expelling up to 70 people).
The Kremlin has decided not to comply with the given conditions leaving the Czech Republic with no option but to come through. Moscow has been given until the end of May to withdraw its people from the country.
This decision, even though very radical, is not unprecedented. In 1971, the United Kingdom expelled 105 soviet agents, efficiently disrupting Soviet intelligence operations in the country for the following two decades.
One Element of Hybrid War
Even though the Vrbětice affair is definitively the most violent and severe violation of Czech sovereignty, the country is a frequent target of Russian hybrid operations. Indeed, it can be regarded as another sad proof that Russia is in an open hybrid conflict with NATO and its allies.
Just last year, Prague saw two unprecedented intelligence operations which reached the highest ranks in Czech politics—the Koněv and the Ricin affairs. The decision to remove an old statue of Soviet Marshall Ivan Koněv from a square in Prague led to a chain of international incidents, such as chains of disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and the mobilization of Czech pro-Kremlin far-left and far-right extremists.
The Russian embassy is believed to have played an important role in the culmination of the conflict in 2020.
It all led to direct intimidation and death threats of Czech political representatives—namely Ondřej Kolář (the mayor of Prague 6, which decided to remove the statue of Koněv) and Zdeněk Hříb (the mayor of Prague, who supported Kolář and is generally considered to be one of the most outspoken critics of Kremlin in the Czech political elite).
The Koněv affair is indirectly connected to the Ricin affair when the media reported that a Russian intelligence agent was sent to the Czech Republic equipped with the poisonous substance Ricin. His mission was believed to be to punish Czech politicians for their disobedience of Russia. As a result, both politicians were assigned police protection.
However, later it turned out that this whole event was a part of an information operation to intimidate the Czech public. In response, the Czech government expelled two Russian diplomats.
Nevertheless, even these two affairs last year were just the tip of the iceberg of all the influence operations the Kremlin is conducting in the Visegrad 4 countries. Furthermore, the Vrbětice affair and other ones prove that Russia still regards Eastern and Central European countries as satellites from which it expects absolute obedience, and that it does not think twice to meddle with their internal affairs brutally.
Russia never has and never will perceive the countries of the post-Soviet space as equals, but always as former colonies to be controlled or re-conquered. Its attempts to punish and bring to heel the Czech Republic fits this pattern.
This is an updated version of an article published by Visegrad Insight on April 22, 2021.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.