The Czech Republic is urging European and NATO allies to take joint retaliatory action against Russia following accusations that Russian spies were behind a huge explosion at a Czech arms depot in 2014. They claim the spies were also part of a special unit that tried to assassinate a double agent in Britain.
The central European country evicted 18 Russian embassy staffers over the weekend, saying they were identified as intelligence officers. "We succeeded in breaking up both of the big Russian (spy) operation cells, and for the Russian side, it will be very complicated to put them together again," Acting Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek said Monday.
Moscow has denied involvement in the 2014 explosion, which killed two workers at the site. The Kremlin expelled 20 Czech diplomats and other staff in retaliation for this week's action.
Speaking at a televised press conference Tuesday, Hamacek said, "We will call for collective action by European Union and NATO countries that will be aimed at a solidarity expulsion of identified members of Russian intelligence service from EU and NATO member states."
The explosion at the arms depot was initially thought to be an accident. Czech investigators, however, recently revealed they had discovered an email that had been sent to "Imex Group," the company that operated the depot, prior to the blast. The message asked that two men be allowed to visit the site. The email was sent from an address, purporting to be from the National Guard of Tajikistan, which was later shown to be fake.
Subsequent investigations found the two men were traveling under false documents. They have since been identified as the suspects in the 2018 nerve-agent poisoning in Britain of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, who barely survived. A local woman died after being exposed to the nerve agent.
The investigative website Bellingcat identified them as Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, both officers in Russia's GRU military intelligence. Their unit, 29155, is believed to focus on sabotage and subversion, says Russia analyst Ian Bond of the London-based Center for European Reform.
"They seem to be extremely active in a number of parts of Europe, and of course apart from them, we have seen the assassination of the Chechen-Georgian exile (Zelimkhan) Khangoshvili in Berlin, for which a Russian is on trial in Germany, and we've still got the MH17 trial going ahead in The Hague, and we've had other Russian citizens assassinated elsewhere in the EU," Bond told VOA.
MH17 refers to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17. The aircraft was shot down July 17, 2014, by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from territory in eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. The Russian military has said the missile that downed the aircraft, killing all 298 people on board, came from the arsenals of the Ukrainian army, not from Russia.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, expressed support Monday for the Czech Republic's expulsion of Russian diplomats. "These diplomats have been identified by the Czech intelligence to be Russian military service agents, and the European Union stands united and in solidarity with the Czech Republic."
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov called the Czech accusations "groundless" and accused the West of "a massive anti-Russian psychosis."
Tensions between Moscow and the West have deepened in recent weeks, as Russia has deployed military hardware and tens of thousands of troops along the Ukrainian border. The European Union has called for de-escalation.
Escalation risk in Ukraine
"The Russian military buildup at the Ukrainian border is very concerning. It is more than 150,000 Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian borders and in Crimea. The risk of further escalation is evident. We have to commend Ukraine for its restrained response, and we urge Russia to de-escalate and to defuse tensions," the EU's Borrell told reporters Monday.
Russia also has jailed the main opposition leader, Alexey Navalny. Doctors say he is in critical condition in a prison hospital after going on a hunger strike when he was denied urgent medical treatment. Navalny survived a near-fatal poisoning last year and was arrested when he returned to Moscow in January following lifesaving treatment in Germany.
The Russian president is trying to whip up support at home, says analyst Bond.
"Putin hasn't had a particularly good 12 months. Russia has one of the highest excess death rates from COVID-19 in the world. The economy is pretty stagnant, and the IMF is forecasting that it will stay pretty stagnant for a while. And the protests about the arrest of Navalny in January were the largest Russia had seen in quite a long time."
The United States imposed new sanctions on Russia this month over alleged cyberattacks and other "malign" acts. U.S. President Joe Biden has proposed a summit with his Russian counterpart.
Europe must act fast in imposing its own measures, Bond said. "It's hard to know what would jog Europe to impose further sanctions if it weren't an example of state-sponsored terrorism of this kind. I can't describe it in any other way — arranging the explosion of an ammunition dump which killed two people — it's hard to see that as anything other than state terrorism.
"That also sends a signal to Putin that there isn't unity yet, even within the EU, about the need to take really firm measures to deter the sorts of activities that he has been authorizing in Europe over the last several years. And I think that will only embolden him unfortunately."
Russia has repeatedly denied involvement in the attacks on European soil and says its troop buildup on the Ukrainian border is in response to what it claims is increased military activity by the United States and NATO forces.