The European Union says it stands in “full support and solidarity” with the Czech Republic amid a diplomatic spat between Prague and Moscow over Czech claims that Russian military agents linked to the 2018 Skripal nerve-agent poisoning in Britain were behind an earlier explosion at a Czech arms depot that killed two people.
The EU “is deeply concerned about the repeating negative pattern of dangerous malign behaviour by Russia in Europe,” the lead spokesman for the bloc's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on April 19 following talks between the bloc’s foreign minister on the matter.
The spokesman, Peter Stano, said in a statement that “Russia must stop with these activities, which violates well-established international principles and norms and threaten stability in Europe."
The previous day, Russia ordered 20 Czech Embassy employees in Moscow to leave the country in response to the Czech government’s expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats it identified as being intelligence operatives. Both sides sent government planes on April 19 to take the envoys and their families home.
The tit-for-tat move and Czech allegations have triggered its biggest dispute with Russia since the 1989 end of communist rule, putting the small Central European NATO member at the center of rising tensions between Moscow and the West.
The foreign ministers of the so-called Visegrad Group consisting of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia condemned “all activities aimed at threatening security of sovereign states and its citizens," according to a statement published on the website of the Polish Foreign Ministry.
The ministers said that they “stand ready to further strengthen our resilience against subversive actions at both national level and together with our NATO allies and within [the] EU.”
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the decision to expel the Russians was based on "unequivocal evidence" provided by Czech investigators pointing to the involvement of Russian military intelligence agents in the 2014 blast in the eastern town of Vrbetice.
Babis said the 2014 attack was "not an act of state terrorism" but was aimed at a shipment to a Bulgarian arms trader, without naming the individual.
“We’re a sovereign state and it’s unacceptable for foreign agents to conduct such operations here,” he said.
The October 16, 2014 explosion in Vrbetice set off 50 metric tons of stored ammunition, killing two people. Two months later, another blast of 13 tons of ammunition occurred at the same site.
The Kremlin on April 19 called the Czech moves "provocative and unfriendly."
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that in addition to the expulsions, the Czech Embassy in Moscow will no longer be allowed to employ Russian citizens.
"It's been decided both with regard to the United States of America and the Czech Republic, that they won't be able to employ citizens of our country any longer. This factor has played an especially important role, in particular, for the Czech Embassy and for the organization of its work in Moscow. They employed a very large number of Russian citizens," she said in an interview on Rossia-1 television.
Acting Czech Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek said Russia's reaction was "stronger than we had expected" as "more diplomats than the number of intelligence officers we expelled."
Czech Industry Minister Karel Havlicek said the government would eliminate Russia's state-run corporation Rosatom from a multi-billion-dollar tender to build a new unit at the Dukovany nuclear power plant.
Babis specifically mentioned a unit of Russia's GRU military intelligence known as Unit 29155.
That unit has been linked to a series of attempted assassination plots and other sabotage across Europe, including the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury.
Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, and his daughter Yulia, nearly died after being exposed to what British authorities later concluded was Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent. A British woman who accidentally came into contact with the substance died.
Britain's NATO allies responded to the Skripal poisoning by imposing sanctions on Russia and expelling diplomats.
While the government unveiled its case, Czech police announced they were seeking two suspected Russian agents carrying various passports, including Russian documents in the names of Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.
The names match those of the two men whom Britain has blamed for the Skripal poisonings.
The open-source-investigation organization Bellingcat identified the suspects as GRU agents Aleksandr Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga.
Scans of the passports used by the two -- published by Bellingcat -- showed Chepiga used a Tajik document to enter the Czech Republic.
The Tajik Foreign Ministry told RFE/RL that it was investigating the report.
"We learned about [the Tajik passport used by Chepiga] from the media and started our investigation. We can't yet make any comments until the end of the investigation," an official at the ministry said.
The fresh dispute adds to a growing list of issues between the West and Moscow, including Russia's military buildup near Ukraine's borders and in occupied Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
Last week, the United States hit Moscow with major new sanctions and expelled 10 diplomats over alleged election interference, cyberattacks, and other perceived hostile activities. Russia responded by ordering a raft of measures and telling an equal number of U.S. diplomats to leave.
The United States, Britain, NATO, and the EU threw their support behind the Czech decision and pledged their support.
Babis said the 2014 attack targeted "ammunition that had already been paid for and was being stored for a Bulgarian arms trader," Babis said on Czech Television, adding that the arms trader had later been the target of an assassination attempt in 2015.
The Czech news magazine Respekt reported that the ammunition and weaponry that was destroyed was intended for Ukraine, which in 2014 was battling Moscow-backed fighters in eastern Ukraine. A Bulgarian arms trader named Emilian Gebrev was reportedly the organizer of the arms deal with Ukraine, Respekt said.
Bulgarian officials have said Gebrev was targeted with a substance similar to the chemical nerve agent Novichok. In January 2019, Bulgarian prosecutors charged three Russians, including a top GRU officer, in absentia in connection with that case.
"We have been informed by our embassy [in Prague] that they [Czech authorities] are working on a few investigative versions," Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva told state broadcaster BNT on April 19.
"One of them is that the delivery [of the blown-up munitions] was for a Bulgarian arms dealer. We are speaking about Emilian Gebrev. They are also working on another investigative version about an arms delivery to Syria."
In a press statement, Gebrev denied that his company had been reexporting ammunition from the Czech Republic to Ukraine in 2014. But he made no comment on whether the ammunition or related materials belonged to his company EMCO. Gebrev did not respond immediately to calls by RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service to clarify.
The EMCO statement, issued on April 19, said it has been documented that the company "has never exported ammunition originating in the Czech Republic to Ukraine" and is willing to cooperate with any investigation in the case.
"In the period months before, during and at least one year after the explosions in the Czech Republic, EMCO did not and did not plan to transport property from the warehouses in question, either to Bulgaria or to any other country," the company statement said, noting that "to date, no investigative body has approached EMCO for information on the matter.
"Assumptions about the motives and causes of the explosions must be clarified by the Czech investigating authorities. As can be seen from the public statements made so far, including by officials, a number are contradictory and some even mutually exclusive," it added.
Viktor Yahun, who was the deputy chief of the Ukrainian Security Service, said that Kyiv in October 2014 had sought to acquire ammunition from Bulgaria around the time of the Czech depot explosions.
"This businessman who was poisoned and was allegedly poisoned by the Russian intelligence services, he was searching for such ammunition in the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, and the best place for their transit storage before sending to Ukraine was, in fact, the Czech Republic," Yahun said in an interview with RFE/RL.
"After the explosions, both Czech law enforcement and we ourselves had suspicions that it might not have been a coincidence," he said.
Outgoing Bulgarian Defense Minister Krassimir Karakachanov confirmed to RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service that Gebrev was dealing with old arms and ammunition that are no longer used by the army.
Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamacek told Czech Television on April 18 that investigators believe the explosion had occurred earlier than planned. According to Hamacek, the blast had been scheduled to take place once the ammunition transport arrived in Bulgaria.