‘Putin is a murderer,’ read the signs carried by protestors outside the Russian Embassy in Prague on Sunday. On Saturday night, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš stunned the Czech Republic by stating that evidence now links Russian GRU secret agents to a massive explosion which killed two people at an arms depot near the Moravian village of Vrbětice in 2014.
Czech Minister of the Interior and acting Foreign Minister Jan Hamáček gave 18 diplomats known to be linked to Russian foreign intelligence 48 hours to leave the country, and compared the situation to the Salisbury poisoning in 2018. The Salisbury parallel was underlined by the announcement of a manhunt for Alexandr Miškin and Anatolij Čepigov – the two Russian intelligence agents thought responsible for the explosion in 2014, and the GRU Unit 29155 agents also blamed for the Salisbury poisoning.
The agents used false identities to arrive in Prague days before the blast in 2014, staying in the city of Ostrava before leaving the country on the day of the explosion. An email to the company which operated the Vrbětice depot, purporting to be from the National Guard of Tajikistan, asked for the two men to be granted access to the site for an inspection. Speculation is rife that the depot became a target for Russian agents due to concerns that its armaments and ammunition would be shipped to Ukraine and to rebel forces in Syria.
The explosion, which killed two workers at the site, was long presumed an accident, but is now being described as the biggest violation of Czech sovereignty since Soviet tanks entered the country to quash the Prague Spring liberalisation in 1968.
The shocking developments have brought about a rapid reversal in Czech-Russian relations. Babiš’s government seemed on the verge of acquiring the Sputnik V vaccine, following the appointment of Petr Arenberger, a figure sympathetic to the use of Sputnik, as the country’s new Health Minister. Acting Foreign Minister Hamáček was due to fly to Moscow on Monday to discuss the Czech Republic receiving the Russian jab – Hamáček has now admitted that the visit was, in fact, publicised as cover for the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the country. The Kremlin last night announced a tit-for-tat retaliation with the expulsion of 20 Czech diplomats from Moscow.
The revelation is forcing the Czech Republic to reconsider not just the Sputnik V vaccine, but Russia’s long-term economic involvement in the country. Minister of Industry and Trade Karel Havlíček has all but confirmed that the Russian company Rosatom, previously the favourite to win a major nuclear power plant contract, will now be excluded from the selection process. A crackdown on Russian organised crime and businessmen representing Russian state interests in the Czech Republic could also follow.
For the majority of people in the Czech public – who remember the Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia from 1968 until the Velvet Revolution in 1989 – evidence of Moscow’s violation of Czech sovereign territory has confirmed their worst suspicions about Russia. Some protestors at the Russian Embassy on Sunday carried placards calling Czech President Miloš Zeman a ‘traitor’ for his pro-Russian tendencies and passionate lobbying for the use of Sputnik V.
Benjamin Roll, Chairman of the Million Moments for Democracy campaigning organisation, led the protests outside the Russian Embassy and told me ‘it is disturbing that our government and President have supported Russian involvement in the extension of the Dukovany nuclear power plant, and have been taken in by the Russian political line on Sputnik V. Zeman has been pro-Russia since his election in 2013, consistently downplaying Russian threats and fostering pro-Russian tendencies in society’.
Zeman’s Russian advocacy has been a cause of major divisions within the Czech government – divisions which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Earlier this month, the Czech Republic’s Health Minister and Foreign Minister were both fired for refusing to toe the line on Russia in relation to Sputnik V and other issues.
Now, their scepticism seems vindicated. The usually voluble President is cutting a remarkably inconspicuous figure, refusing to comment publicly on the developments until next weekend. And the Sputnik procurement – which appeared all but certain only days ago – seems dead in the water. Saturday’s revelations have turned Russian influence in the Czech Republic, previously a topic of heated debate, into the subject of universal condemnation.
'The expulsion of diplomats and prevention of Russian companies from entering the Czech energy sector are just the tip of the iceberg,' says Dr Matúš Halás, Head of the European Security Centre at Prague’s Institute of International Relations. 'Russia has become toxic, and it will now be almost impossible to publicly endorse any form of political cooperation with Moscow.'
Czech commentators are calling for a coordinated response from the country’s EU and Nato allies. Attention is on neighbouring Germany in particular, as evidence of Russian aggression at the heart of Europe casts the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project (and feared European energy dependence on Russia) in a particularly sinister light.
The EU’s response was discussed today at a meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers. The Sputnik jab looked set to conquer Europe at the start of April, but few could have foreseen the dramatic deterioration in the West’s relations with Moscow. With aggression in the Czech Republic revealed and troops massing at the Ukrainian border, the harsh reality of Russian hostility has been left in little doubt.