May in Central Europe: the Czech Republic takes a stand against Russia4 min read
On April 17, the Czech Republic revealed that they suspected spies from Russian military intelligence (GRU) were responsible for a pair of mysterious explosions in the village of Vrbětice that destroyed two arms depots in October and December 2014. Two people were left dead in an attack that Czech authorities said was aimed at preventing an arms delivery to Ukraine at a time when Russia had only recently annexed the Crimean Peninsula and the current war in the Donbas was beginning to take shape.
The Czech Republic responded by expelling 18 suspected Russian intelligence officers from Russia’s embassy staff in Prague. Russia furiously denied the charges and expelled 20 Czech diplomats from the Moscow embassy, reducing it by some reports to a skeleton staff. After the Vrbětice revelation, Prague called on its allies to stand by it and the European Union assured it of its support as did NATO and the United States.
The most outward displays of support came from other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all expelled Russian diplomats as an open expression of support for the Czech Republic. Slovakia and Romania similarly ordered Russian diplomats to pack their bags and leave to show their support. Poland meanwhile backed the Czechs quickly after engaging in its own expulsions only two days before the Vrbětice announcement.
Together this was the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats since 2018 after Moscow was accused of using a nerve agent in an attempt to assassinate former GRU-spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom. A detail to note which brings the two cases together is the same “sports supplement salesmen”, Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga, taking the lead in these deadly attacks.
Prague’s strong response to what happened in Vrbětice demonstrated how seriously it was ready to respond to what current and former officials called an act of “state terrorism”. But the big question now is whether this translates into the Czech Republic changing its approach to years worth of internal security fears that emanate from Russia.
The expulsion of Russian personnel from its embassy is one sign that authorities are doing that. For years, Czech intelligence has warned that the large size of the Russian embassy’s staff presented a “long-term security problem” and at one point estimated that up to 40 percent of its personnel were spies. In fact, the most recent report from 2019 said that this “disproportionately large” diplomatic presence was complicating any work towards preventing Russia’s intelligence and influence operations inside the Czech Republic.
Joining these concerns over Russian spies was fear of Moscow getting a stronger foothold in the Czech Republic’s energy sector. Front and center was the potential for Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company, to get a role in the nuclear plant at Dukovany. Czech politicians were divided over whether to allow Russia to be involved or not, but their concern was palpable.“We’re selecting a partner for the next 80 years,” said Pirate Party MP Jan Lipavský, whose party is showing strong poll results ahead of this year’s legislative elections. “Russia considers NATO countries a threat…We are their enemy and Rosatom is part of their security services. They cannot build this reactor.”
The binding agent to these challenges, though, has been none other than President Milos Zeman, whose pro-Russian sentiments are notorious. Even after the Vrbětice revelation, Zeman drew scorn for insisting there were “two versions” to the incident, continuing a long trend of casting doubt on and outright undermining his own intelligence services on anything related to Russia. The president’s pro-Russia sentiments are also said to be behind even considering Rosatom as well as the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine in the Czech Republic.
Outrage over what happened in Vrbětice now looks like it is spurring the Czech Republic to make a strong stand against Russia. After the tit for tat expulsions of diplomats, the Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek gave Czech intelligence officers the break they needed by announcing that both the Russian embassy in Prague and Czech embassy in Moscow would cap their total diplomatic staff at 32, in line with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Kulhanek kept the door open to raising that number one day down the line, but for now, Czech officials may feel they have more room to counter Russian spying or influence operations.
Zeman has not been much of a factor in preventing tougher actions either. Both his desired tender for Rosatom has fallen apart while plans to see Sputnik V gain approval ahead of an EU authorization has stalled. Meanwhile, Zeman himself has faced protests from angry Czechs, some of whom are demanding treason charges against him.
What is clear now is that the Vrbětice incident seven years ago has been a boost to the Czech Republic’s willingness to reduce its exposure to Russian machinations. The future will hopefully see relations between the two improve, but at least for now, the Czech Republic may feel like it is in a safer place than it was on April 17, 2014.