PRAGUE -- On March 14, Andrei Konchakov arrived at Vaclav Havel International Airport on a flight from Moscow. The 34-year-old Russian had lived in the Czech capital for years, and was recently appointed director of two state-run Russian institutions in Prague, giving him diplomatic status.
That much is known. Czech media, however, have reported more explosive charges.
In early April, the investigative weekly Respekt quoted a Czech security official as saying the individual – not named at the time -- had a suitcase containing the toxic poison ricin. Furthermore, Respekt reported that it had uncovered a Kremlin poisoning plot targeting up to three Prague municipal officials who had recently backed or approved actions that angered Moscow.
Police authorized round-the-clock protection for the trio: The mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib, and the mayors of two Prague districts, Ondrej Kolar and Pavel Novotny.
Hrib had approved the renaming of the square in front of the Russian Embassy in Prague after slain Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, a vocal foe of President Vladimir Putin. Kolar had approved the removal in his district of a statue of Ivan Konev, a Soviet marshal who led forces that fought in Czechoslovakia in World War II. Novotny had a monument built in his district to the Vlasov Army, Soviet Army defectors who fought alongside the Nazis before turning against them in the final days of the war.
Western security analysts said that if true, it was one of Russia's most brazen actions in a NATO and European Union country since Putin came to power 20 years ago.
Russia, accused of carrying out numerous attacks on perceived enemies abroad -- most recently the nerve-agent poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter -- has dismissed the reports and asserted that Moscow is the target of an ongoing smear campaign.
Two months since he arrived in Prague with what he says was a case containing "disinfectant and candies," Konchakov apparently remains at the Russian Embassy, and Czech officials have not moved to expel him. Russia has requested police protection for him, claiming he has faced unspecified threats.
Czech officials have said police are investigating the information contained in the initial Respekt article and subsequent reports after the counterintelligence agency, BIS, filed a formal request. Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek has said any action against Russian diplomats would only be taken based on the findings of that police probe.
However, as the probe continues, analysts say it may face hurdles due to a number of potential factors, including difficulties stemming from diplomatic immunity, differences of opinion among Czech officials, sensitivities about Russian ties -- even as they are severely strained -- and what at least publicly amounts to little clear evidence.
Czech President Milos Zeman, one of the EU's most Kremlin-friendly leaders, has seemed to cast doubt on the reports, at one point calling ricin a "laxative" rather than a poison.
Meanwhile, some security analysts say it’s possible that rather than an actual plot in which ricin was carried through the airport, it could have been a Kremlin ruse to intimidate the Czechs.
"This has the elements of a psychological campaign against the Czech Republic to show Russia's disapproval of Prague's recent actions," says Ben West, a senior security analyst at the intelligence firm Stratfor.
Konchakov is listed as head of the Prague branch of Rossotrudnichestvo, a state-run agency tasked with overseeing the well-being of Russians living abroad, and as director of the Russian Center for Science and Culture, another Russian state-financed institution based in the Czech capital, in the leafy neighborhood near the embassy. Czech media have reported that Konchakov acquired diplomatic status in 2019.
Russia has some 140 diplomatic staff at its embassy in Prague, making it by far the largest diplomatic mission in the Czech Republic. The Czech counterintelligence agency has long warned that the embassy in Prague was a nerve center for Russian espionage, not only in the Czech Republic but elsewhere in Europe.
"A long-term security problem remains the oversized Russian diplomatic mission in the Czech Republic, which raises the threat of Czech citizens coming into contact with the intelligence service of a foreign power," the BIS said in its latest annual report, issued in November 2019.
Diplomats largely enjoy immunity from local law, as enshrined in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Among other privileges, they can work largely unhindered by law and carry a diplomatic pouch that cannot be searched or seized.
That includes checked luggage, meaning that Konchakov could have slipped the ricin past Czech customs officials.
"The Kremlin used a similar technique in the 2006 assassination of Aleksandr Litvinenko and the 2018 attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal," says William Courtney, a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation think tank and a former U.S. diplomat with years of service linked to Russia and the former Soviet bloc. "In both cases, an official from Moscow sneaked an exotic poison into the country where the targets were located and after carrying out the plot, both were publicly exposed."
As long as Konchakov has diplomatic status, the Czech authorities cannot arrest him, Courtney says, but they could take the step of declaring him persona non grata and expelling him.
Stratfor's West says that Konchakov's diplomatic status could be a barrier to the police investigation as well. "Diplomatic immunity likely makes the investigation more technically complicated since police cannot simply search embassy property or personnel without creating a larger diplomatic incident," he says.
Police And Politics?
Zeman, who has criticized EU sanctions imposed on Russia over its actions in Ukraine and called in the past for referendums on Czech membership in both NATO and the EU, made clear he was not taking the allegations very seriously, saying Czech intelligence had not outed any Russian agent.
The president, who holds less power than the prime minister, also told Czech public radio on May 5 that ricin was not a poison but a "laxative." And he has wondered aloud whether the three Prague officials hadn't requested police protection to create a bit of self-promotional buzz.
"When a politician is average he tries to gain attention in other ways, such as a sexual scandal, stealing money, or even this way," said Zeman, 75, who has been president since 2013.
Hrib, who is from the anti-establishment Pirate party and is part of a new wave of younger politicians, fired back. "The Czech president should stand behind his citizens, and not defend the interest of foreign powers," he said.
The firebrand Novotny, an outspoken former investigative journalist, called Zeman a "senile old man."
Meanwhile, a top aide to Zeman told local media that he knew Konchakov and described him as a "good guy."
The aide, Zdenek Zbytek, a Czechoslovak military officer in the communist era, is described by Czech media as a gray eminence who has Zeman's ear and high-level contacts in the Kremlin. He has rented offices in the building where the Russian cultural center is located.
Against the backdrop of diplomatic hurdles and political differences, the need for clear and concrete information about what happened may be paramount, analysts suggest.
"Czech intelligence probably has enough evidence indicating which Russian diplomats are engaged in espionage" but will need strong evidence now amid the current ricin allegations to take action, says a Czech security analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the matter.
The analyst points to Czech party politics as another possible hurdle to the probe and potential action by the authorities. He says that the government of Prime Minister Andrej Babis may be wary of upsetting Zeman and risking potentially losing the support of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), which it relies upon for political power.
A Russian Ruse?
Christo Grozev, a journalist with the British-based open-source investigative group Bellingcat, says he has "not found enough evidence to conclude that the ricin story is factually correct."
He says the information about a Russian carrying ricin may have come from an intelligence source whom "the Czech authorities did not trust completely -- as if they had, they would have acted more aggressively -- they could have interrogated him on arrival, asked him to voluntarily show the contents of the bag, etc.," Grozev told RFE/RL in an e-mail.
Some security experts say it was possible that Russia was behind the ricin allegation from the start, seeking to frighten the Czech authorities.
West says that there is no doubt of Russia's and the Soviet Union's record of alleged assassinations abroad, including using ricin in the 1978 umbrella-pricking poisoning of the Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov in London, but questioned whether the Kremlin would turn to the toxin now.
"While ricin is lethal if administered directly, and has a history of use in previous Soviet-linked assassinations...there are many more effective ways to kill someone," West says.
The alleged involvement of ricin "suggests that this was intimidation theater" orchestrated by the Kremlin to send a message to the Czech authorities.