That the Czech Republic is pointing the finger at two Russian agents for a deadly explosion at an ammunition depot in the country is remarkable. The fact that the agents in question are the same pair accused of trying to poison a former Russian spy on English soil is nothing short of astounding.
On Saturday, Czech police released images of two men they said were linked to a blast which killed two people at a repository in Vrbetice in 2014.
The photographs matched those of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, the names the prime suspects traveled under during their alleged involvement in the near-fatal poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in 2018.
A day later, the UK foreign office said that according to Czech authorities, the two men charged with the Skripals’ attempted murder “were also behind the deaths of two civilians and an explosion in the Czech town of Vrbetice.”
A Czech government source with direct knowledge of the investigation said Monday that police suspect the explosion was premature and not meant to happen on Czech territory.
The source, who requested anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, said the Czech police’s organized crime unit is pursuing a line of inquiry that suggests the ammunition was meant to explode in Bulgaria after being exported there. It is not clear why the blast happened prematurely.
The Czech Republic said it would expel 18 employees of the Russian Embassy in Prague in retaliation for the 2014 explosion, which caused huge financial and environmental damage.
Russia responded by expelling 20 diplomats from the Czech Republic’s embassy in Moscow.
On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the Czech Republic’s decision “provocative and unfriendly.”
Russia mocks West
The UK believes that the two men suspected of carrying out the Salisbury attack were Russian intelligence officers, first identified by the investigative website Bellingcat as Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin.
The Kremlin has dismissed the allegations, and at times appeared to mock the West for its hysterical “Russophobia.” Russian and international media subsequently confirmed the identities of Chepiga and Mishkin in interviews with residents of their home villages in Russia’s north and Far East.
If it’s true that the same two men were behind this explosion, and Moscow’s response to such serious allegations remains similarly glib, it raises serious questions about what Europe can really do to curb Russia’s brazen hostility.
The Skripals were found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury city center on March 4, 2018; tests revealed they had been exposed to Novichok, a nerve agent described as one of the deadliest chemical weapons ever made.
Moscow has denied any involvement with the Salisbury incident, and the two men claim they were in the UK as tourists. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the two men identified as suspects are “not criminals.”
But even if Putin doesn’t believe they are criminals, there is ample evidence the two pair are far from innocent tourists who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Back in 2018, Britain’s then-Prime Minister, Theresa May, told lawmakers that UK authorities believed the two suspects were officers of the Russian military intelligence service known as the GRU.
“The GRU is a highly-disciplined organization with a well-established chain of command, so this was not a rogue operation,” May said in parliament. “It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.”
The UK’s Crown Prosecution Service said at the time that it had “concluded there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction … [for] conspiracy to murder Sergei Skripal and the attempted murder of Skripal, [and] his daughter Yulia.”
Britain’s allies were equally convinced that the two men were working on behalf of the Russian government. Former US President Donald Trump expelled 60 Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning. More were expelled from 14 European Union member states, Canada and Ukraine.
After entering the UK under aliases and carrying out the Salisbury attack, it’s thought that “Petrov and Boshirov” escaped home to Russia, where they are now believed to be protected by the Russian state.
If the UK’s version of events is correct, Russia’s official response to the allegations became increasingly serious once the pair were safely home.
In September 2018, Putin said Russian authorities had identified the pair and found no evidence of criminal activities.
“We, of course, looked at what kind of people they are, and we know who they are, we found them,” Putin told an audience at the Eastern Economic Forum in the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok.
“There is nothing unusual or criminal there, I assure you,” he insisted, adding: “Let them come out somewhere, to you in the media.”
The very next day, Kremlin-backed news network RT released an almost-mocking interview with the pair, in which they claimed they were simply in the sports nutrition business and that the purpose of their 6,000-mile, three-day trip was to visit Salisbury Cathedral, with its 123-meter spire and famous clock, the “first of its kind anywhere in the world.”
UK authorities refuted the men’s claims and pointed to timestamped CCTV footage tracking movements that would be extremely unusual for tourists to the country.
The footage showed that the men arrived in the UK on March 2. On March 3, the day before the attack, they traveled to Salisbury, staying in the city for less than two hours. They later claimed that heavy snow had made their tourism plans impossible, though local weather reports and video footage dispute this.
The following day, they returned to Salisbury, arriving in the city at 11.45am; they were seen in the vicinity of Skripal’s house before midday, and boarded a train back to London at 1.50pm. That evening, they went through passport control at Heathrow Airport at 7.30pm before boarding a plane to Moscow.
Just over a month after the RT interview, it was reported that one of the suspects had received a heroes’ honor from Vladimir Putin.
The official Russian response to Salisbury varied from pearl-clutching claims of Russophobia from diplomats to Putin himself calling Skripal a “traitor to the Motherland” and a “scumbag.”
Smear campaign claims
Kremlin sympathizers are already claiming that the accusations leveled at the purported agents Petrov and Boshirov by Czech officials are part of a smear campaign against Russia.
Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a state-sponsored think tank that hews closely to official government policy, told the BBC that: “If you look at this whole story from the Kremlin, I think that they would conclude it was a false flag and basically the leadership of the Czech Republic is trying to do that on the eve of the EU ministerial, to make life harder for Moscow.”
The meeting he refers to is a videoconference between European foreign affairs ministers planned for Monday, at which they are expected to discuss Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, the deteriorating health of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny and, presumably, this latest development in the Czech Republic.
Russia’s repeated delinquent behavior should — on paper, at least – make the expulsion of more diplomats and the prospect of further sanctions a slam dunk for European leaders – especially given that US President Joe Biden appears to be in lockstep with the EU on punishing Russia.
But even if the EU unites in its condemnation of Russia this week for a huge range of issues, it is unlikely the Kremlin will be perturbed by any stamping of feet.
After all, if the past few years have taught Putin anything, it’s this: No matter how serious the allegations against him are – from assisting a Syrian dictator in bombing his own people to sanctioning the attempted assassination of political opponents – European leaders cannot deny their geography.
Whether it’s through the supply of natural resources or digging Europe out of its vaccine shortage crisis, as long as Russia has something to offer its neighbors to the West, pragmatic appeasement will, to some extent, win the day.
CNN’s Ivana Kottasová contributed to this report.