Shortly before 10am on October 16, 2014, the Zlin region fire brigade in the east of the Czech Republic received an emergency call. A warehouse in an ammunition depot near the village of Vrbetice was burning.
Firefighters rushed to the scene. But with ammunition already beginning to explode they were unable to extinguish the blaze, and withdrew. Soon afterwards a huge blast devastated the low-slung warehouse, showered tonnes of explosive debris over the surrounding area and killed two people.
The ramifications of that blast, and another at the same site seven weeks later, are still being felt. On Saturday Czech officials said that both were suspected to be the result of sabotage carried out by the same elite Unit 29155 of Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, that was allegedly behind the attempted murder of a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, in the UK in 2018.
The allegations, which come as western capitals worry about a huge Russian military build-up on its border with Ukraine, have sparked tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions. And they have driven relations between Russia and the Czech Republic to their lowest point since the end of the cold war.
According to Czech police, two men using passports in the names of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov — the same as those charged by the UK with trying to kill Skripal — arrived in the Czech Republic in mid-October 2014. After briefly staying in Prague, they moved to the Moravian-Silesian region, and then to the Zlin district, where the explosions took place.
Jan Hamacek, the Czech interior minister, said the reason for their interest in the ammunition depot near Vrbetice was a consignment that had already been purchased by a Bulgarian arms dealer. Hamacek did not think the Czech Republic was itself the target.
“We think that the plan was not to detonate it in the Czech Republic but the plan was to detonate it on the way to Bulgaria and, simply, something went wrong on their side,” he told Sky News.
“We have two lines of thought. Basically, what we think is that this ammunition was to be used somewhere against Russian interests so we suspect Ukraine or Syria.”
Russia, Petrov and Boshirov have denied any involvement in the attempted murder of Skripal, and Russian officials have dismissed Czech claims that its operatives were behind the Vrbetice explosions as “nonsense”.
However, serving and former western security officials have endorsed the Czechs’ linking of the suspects from the Skripal attack to the Czech arms depot explosion.
“I think the Czechs have pieced this together really rather well,” John Sawers, a former head of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, who was still in post until shortly after the first Czech arms depot explosion, told the BBC on Monday. “I think the Czechs have got these two people who tried to assassinate Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, I think they’ve got them bang to rights.”
Other security allies praised Prague’s calling out of aggressive Russian activity and the demonstration that hostile acts by Moscow will not go unpunished.
“Unit 29155 is responsible for sabotage, election interference, attempted and actual murder,” one western security official said. “They are a nasty group of people used by the Kremlin to further its strategic and tactical aims across the world — but they keep getting caught, so you can see their tradecraft is actually fairly poor”.
Jan Sir, from the department of Russian and eastern European studies at Charles University in Prague, said the explosions in Vtrbice should not be seen in isolation, but as part of a broader Russian effort to deploy hybrid tactics against European and Nato member states.
“I think this is part of the Russian strategy of deliberately blurring the line between peace and war,” he said. “This is part of creating a permissive environment for further subversive efforts by Russia against Nato states.”
Hamacek said on Saturday that the Czech Republic would expel 18 Russian diplomats who had been identified by Czech security services as working for the GRU or the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency.
However, following an aggressive response from the Russians, who expelled 20 Czech diplomats, including the deputy ambassador, calls have been made for the Czech government to take further steps of its own.
The central European nation has long been regarded as a launch pad for Russian intelligence operations in western Europe. The Czech domestic intelligence service, the BIS, warned in its latest report that Russia, along with China, had “the most active” foreign intelligence service in the country.
Some observers have called on the government to use the fight over the Vrbetice explosions and Moscow’s tough response as an opportunity to scale back Russia’s embassy in Prague. It had about 135 staff before the latest expulsions.
Czech officials said on Monday evening that Rosatom, would in effect be excluded from a tender for a new unit at the Dukovany nuclear plant.
“Russia should not be part of this project,” said Jan Lipavsky, an MP from the opposition Pirate party who also serves on the Czech parliament’s defence committee. He argued that Russia could threaten to stop construction as a way of “blackmailing” the Czech Republic.
“The construction will take 20 years to finish. So for 20 years you would need a perfect partnership. How do you want to create a partnership with a company that is state-owned? If anything went wrong, it could become a political game.”