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Accusations of spying and sabotage plunge Russian-Czech relations into the deep freeze

A man leaves the Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow on Monday. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)
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correction

An earlier version of this article misidentified Jiri Sedivy as the Czech chief of the general staff. He is a former chief of the general staff. The version has been updated.

BERLIN — Czech authorities said Monday that arms blown up by Russian agents in 2014 — an accusation that sparked a diplomatic feud between the two countries over the weekend — belonged to a Bulgarian weapons dealer who was mysteriously poisoned six month later.

In a news conference on Monday evening, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said that the actions by Russian military intelligence agents were "unacceptable" but that the state was not the target.

"It was not an act of state terrorism," he said. "It was an attack on goods that belonged to a Bulgarian arms dealer."

EMCO, a Bulgarian arms firm owned by Emilian Gebrev, confirmed that its goods were targeted. Gebrev and his son were poisoned in Bulgaria in 2015 after a substance was smeared on his car door.

The connection between Gebrev and the arms warehouses hit by explosions in the Czech Republic on two occasions in 2014 raises questions as to why the Bulgarian might have found himself in Moscow's crosshairs.

At the time, Russia was in the midst of its war with Ukraine, and weapons from Eastern Europe were reported to be flowing to the battlefields there and into Syria, where Moscow was backing President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Gebrev's firm denies that the arms were to be exported to either country.

Gebrev has said he does not know why he would have been a target, but has pointed to competition in the arms industry as a possible explanation.

The two agents from Russian military intelligence unit 29155 accused by Czech authorities of carrying out the attack have been linked to several attacks on NATO soil, including the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia using the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury, England, in 2018.

Bellingcat, the investigative reporting organization that first named the agents as members of unit 29155, has also linked them to Gebrev’s poisoning in Bulgaria.

The Czech scandal underscores the suspected scope of Russian intelligence attacks on NATO soil in recent years. The United States last week expelled 10 Russian diplomats and imposed sanctions over Russian cyberattacks, election interference and other activities.

The October 2014 explosion in Vrbetice, which killed two Czech workers, was a mystery for years. Babis said the government learned of Russia’s involvement on Friday, when it received an intelligence report. The news sparked outrage in the country.

On Saturday, Prague expelled 18 Russians, all of whom it accused of being spies. Russia retaliated late Sunday by expelling 20 Czech diplomats, leaving just a handful in Moscow.

Reverberations continued Monday as Czech Industry Minister Karel Havlicek said Russia’s state nuclear authority, Rosatom, would be barred from bidding on new reactors at the Dukovany Nuclear Power Plant.

Officials from the United States and the European Union have expressed support for Prague's actions. Acting foreign minister Jan Hamacek said the government was mulling further measures against Moscow and he'd asked his E.U. counterparts Monday for an expression of solidarity.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that Moscow “categorically rejects” the Czech allegations, which he called “provocative and unfriendly.”

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According to prosecutors, the two agents flew to Prague several days before the October explosion using fake Russian passports. Once in the country, they posed as “businessmen” from Moldova and Tajikistan and organized a visit to the munitions depot.

“Investigators have a large amount of evidence,” said Pavel Zeman, the Czech Republic’s top prosecutor.

The agents were named by police as Aleksander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga. Zeman said copies of their passports and forensic analysis have identified them as the agents responsible for the Salisbury attack in 2018.

In addition to the deadly October attack, Czech prosecutors are investigating another explosion at a warehouse in Vrbetice in November.

Both warehouses were rented by Imex Group, a Czech arms firm. They contained “military materiel that was going to be shipped soon, most of it to a Bulgarian client,” Zeman said.

“Our working theory is that the target of the attack was this military materiel destined for Bulgaria and the explosion was not supposed to happen on Czech soil.”

Radek Ondrus, a lawyer for the Imex Group, said it had no information on the ultimate destination for the arms. All shipments were destined for the European Union, he said.

Gebrev’s company has indicated it was the client to which the materiel was to be shipped.

“We can confirm that part of the materiel which was blown up in the Czech Republic in 2014 was our property,” EMCO said in a statement. But the firm denied there had been imminent plans to ship the goods anywhere. It said archived documents show there were no plans for transportation.

“Allegations that the munitions destroyed by the terrorist attack in the Czech Republic in 2014 were intended for re-export by EMCO to Ukraine are not true,” it said. It said the firm has never exported arms from the Czech Republic to Ukraine. It called for Bulgarian authorities to restart its stalled investigation into Gebrev’s poisoning.

When Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned in Siberia last year, German doctors consulted with their Bulgarian counterparts on how to treat him, due to the similarity with the Gebrev case, according to German press reports at the time.

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