Czechs and Imbalances

Unlike the Skripal poisoning, the West hasn’t expelled many Russian spies over a Russian state terror attack in the Czech Republic. Czechs say they have only themselves to blame

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Czechs and Imbalances
A Czech and a European Union flags flies at the Czech embassy in Moscow on April 19, 2021/Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

On April 22, the Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhánek, along with the country’s head of counterintelligence, Michal Koudelka, presented evidence that a unit of Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, blew up an ammunition depot near the Moravian village of Vrbětice in 2014. The ammunition, Czech media reported, was intended for Ukraine.

Stunning as that disclosure was, it was met by still another headline grabber. Two of the GRU operatives partly responsible for this “act of state terrorism,” as the Czech senate called it, were identified as Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, who tried to murder Sergei Skripal, a GRU defector to British intelligence, and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury in 2018. The murder weapon was the military-grade nerve agent Novichok. Chepiga and Mishkin even traveled to the Czech Republic using the same cover identities they’d use four years later when they arrived in Britain.

As a result, the Czech government undertook a bit of “spring cleaning.” Initially it expelled 18 Russian intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover from the Russian embassy in Prague, a notorious and well-staffed den of espionage in Europe. But when the Kremlin retaliated by kicking out 20 Czech officials from the Czech embassy in Moscow, reducing that mission to a skeletal crew, the government decided on an even bolder course of action: seeking parity in diplomatic representation. That meant around 80 Russian officials, all told, have been given until the end of May to leave the country.

Skripal’s attempted murder, involving as it did a weapon of mass destruction in a European city, resulted in the death of one British citizen, Dawn Sturgess, who accidentally came in contact with the Novichok container (a perfume bottle). And so, that act of Russian state terrorism was duly met with a slate of Western expulsions of Russian intelligence officers embedded throughout the European Union and NATO member states — over 150 of them — from Ottawa to Riga. The Czech Republic expelled three.

But mark the contrast between 2018 and 2021. Two Czech citizens were killed in the Vrbětice bombing, perpetrated by the same GRU unit and two of the same operatives. Yet the West’s collective response has been anemic. The only countries to expel Russian spies so far have been Slovakia, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The rest of the West has simply made noise.

The North Atlantic Council, the political decision-making body of NATO, expressed “deep concern over the destabilizing actions Russia continues to carry out across the Euro-Atlantic area, including on Alliance territory.” Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said the incident was “about a grave criminal offence that runs counter to Russia’s international obligations,” and he expressed “full support and solidarity with the Czech Republic.”

Even the United States, which kicked out 80 Russian intelligence officers over the Skripal affair, hasn’t touched the personnel in either Russia’s Washington embassy or its mission to the United Nations in New York. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did, however, speak with the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and “emphasized U.S. solidarity with the Czech Republic in its courageous response to Russia’s subversive and deadly actions on Czech soil.”

“Such reaction, or in fact the lack of reaction, astounds me,” Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, told Newlines. “We are talking about military operations on NATO territory. It requires a strong statement that we don’t tolerate such things. Expelling diplomats would show you mean business that it’s not just another exercise in expressing ‘deep concern.’”

According to Ilves, the message that the Kremlin will have registered after such a tepid response to an act of Russian state terrorism is: “Davai (let’s push on). They will not do anything anyway.”

A high-ranking official in Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who had not been authorized to speak to the press, added that Tallinn had been leading a quiet rearguard effort to get the EU and NATO to follow its lead. All to no avail.

“We can’t but react strongly when Russia crosses these red lines,” the official said. “Nor can we afford to have total solidarity with one ally and only partial solidarity with a smaller country in Eastern Europe, which also happens to be a newer member of NATO.” (The Czech Republic joined the alliance in 1999.)

Paradoxically, an escalation in Russian misbehavior across-the-board has led to an anticlimax in Western reprisals.

While the similarities with the Skripal case are stark, there are also differences that help account for the nonchalant reaction to another brazen GRU operation, a diplomat assigned to NATO headquarters in Brussels told Newlines. The first is that the Vrbětice explosion happened seven years ago, whereas the Salisbury poisoning was unmasked in real time. The second is that a number of Western countries have recently expelled Russian spies because of unrelated incidents. Paradoxically, an escalation in Russian misbehavior across-the-board has led to an anticlimax in Western reprisals.

In April, for instance, Washington kicked out 10 diplomats because of Russia’s interference in the 2020 presidential election and its hacking of federal agencies and private companies via the SolarWinds cybersecurity software, a breach the U.S. government has attributed to the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. Germany, Poland, and Italy have likewise depleted Russian embassies for separate matters, including ongoing espionage cases. In a sense, then, it’s almost gratuitous to punish the Kremlin for past behavior when it’s still getting up to no good in the present.

But then there’s the awkward fact that the Czechs themselves have, by their own admission, played a strong hand incredibly poorly, owing largely to the fact that high-profile members of their political establishment are more eager to represent Moscow’s interests over Prague’s.

In a televised address, Czech President Miloš Zeman, long known for his pro-Kremlin views, publicly cast doubt on his own intelligence service’s conclusion about the Vrbětice bombing, suggesting there was another, simpler explanation: human error. Zeman is fond of imaginative counterfactuals when it comes to GRU malfeasance: In 2018, he openly sided with the Kremlin in the Skripal affair and promoted Russian disinformation that suggested the Novichok had been cooked up in a Czech lab.

Meanwhile, Babiš, long dogged by corruption allegations, initially declined to endorse his own senate’s judgment that the attack amounted to state terrorism. “Russia was not attacking the Czech Republic,” Babiš said in a press conference on April 19. “The agents attacked the goods of a Bulgarian arms trader, who was probably selling these arms to parties fighting Russia.” He might have added that the arms trader, Emilian Gebrev, was himself poisoned with Novichok — twice — in Bulgaria in 2015 by operatives from the hyperactive GRU Unit 29155, according to Bulgarian authorities.

Finally, and perhaps most embarrassingly, it was reported that Czech Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Jan Hamáček, who was then also the interim foreign minister, had planned a trip to Moscow to lobby for importing doses of the Russian-manufactured Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine despite having been briefed two weeks earlier about the Vrbětice attack. The trip was subsequently canceled.

“Many allies do not trust the current Czech government and the president, which is clearly understandable,” said Jakub Janda, the director of the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague. Janda pointed to Zeman and his allies’ recent efforts to manipulate a tender worth $6 billion on a nuclear power plant in the village of Dukovany so that Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company, would win it. That’s all over now thanks to the ensuing froideur in relations, but the fact the deal was ultimately scuttled by Czech counterintelligence pursuing a cold case rather than elected officials pursuing the national interest is not lost on some observers.

“You can have the best police and intelligence institutions,” Janda said, “but once your political leadership cannot be trusted on geopolitical security matters, allies will formally support you, but no real action will be taken to punish the aggressor on your behalf.”

“The issue is that Zeman and his allies actively serve the interests of the Kremlin and exert pressure on Babiš,” said Monika Richter, a Czech American analyst with Semantic Visions, a Prague-based data analytics firm, who has mapped disinformation tropes about the Vrbětice story. “Babiš is broadly pro-Western but his minority coalition was politically dependent on the Czech Communist Party, which is also heavily pro-Russian.”

Another problem is one of timing with respect to internal power-plays within the tenuous coalition government. Tomáš Petříček, the staunchly pro-Western foreign minister with a critical track record toward Moscow, was ousted by the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) days before the Vrbětice announcement. The underlying reason was precisely his pro-Western orientation, as well as his opposition to the Czech Republic acquiring the Sputnik V vaccine and awarding Rosatom the Dukovany tender. When Petříček lost the leadership race for the ČSSD, he was promptly fired by Hamáček, who is also the incumbent head of the ČSSD and a loyal ally of Zeman. Hamáček thus became the acting foreign minister days before the Vrbětice announcement broke, and his incredibly ill-advised travel plans to Moscow to procure the Sputnik V vaccine contributed to the domestic political scandal.

Jan Paďourek, a former deputy director of the Czech External Intelligence Service, told Newlines that if the government feels let down by its Western partners, then it should look in the mirror. “I am afraid that we are also responsible for this,” he said, singling out Zeman’s conspiracy theory as Exhibit A for why other countries needn’t feel any urgency or pressure to pick a fight with Russian President Vladimir Putin on someone else’s behalf.

“We like to take, but we are not ready to give,” Jan Lipavský, the vice chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Czech Parliament and a member of the opposition Pirate Party, told Newlines. “During the 2015 migration crisis, we were against any kind of solidarity in the European Union, and that line has been continued by Andrej Babiš.”

According to Lipavský, the Czech government tried to refrain from disclosing the intelligence on the GRU’s involvement in the Vrbětice explosion until after the country’s upcoming parliamentary election in October. The decision was taken to acknowledge the new details only when the Czech press started making inquiries. As a result, Lipavský said, diplomats had only a day to prepare their notes for a meeting of NATO’s ministers of foreign affairs. And the new Czech foreign minister had only been appointed days earlier.

“I know for sure that we haven’t done 100%,” Lipavský said. “We did maybe 20% to get maximum support in NATO. It’s a huge shame.”

Nevertheless, on May 8, Babiš — who, chastened by the public backlash to his denial of state terrorism, reversed course on the question — once more asked EU member states for greater support at a summit in Lisbon. His Estonian counterpart, Kaja Kallas, asked why there wasn’t a unified response in Russian spy expulsion as there had been with Skripal. The replies ranged from vague to noncommittal.

The following day, Vitezslav Pivonka, the Czech ambassador to Russia, attended the Victory Day parade in Moscow commemorating the surrender of Nazi Germany, as if his embassy hadn’t just been hollowed out by his hosts. Jaws in other European capitals, particularly those that had labeled Russian diplomats personae non grata for the Czech Republic, hit the floor.

“The Baltic diplomats did not attend the event,” Lipavský said. “It shows they are with us, but we are not with them.”

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