On the evening of 17 April, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš announced that 18 members of Russian diplomatic staff are to be expelled from the country over evidence linking two Russian GRU agents – based on photos, the same agents who attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal in England – to two explosions of ammunition depots that happened in 2014; an incident that killed two people and caused an evacuation of the entire surrounding area. Clearing the area out took six years and cost over 350 million crowns (13.5 million euros). The reason for the sabotage remains unclear. The most likely theory is that it appears to be a Russian attempt to prevent the ammunition from reaching Syria or Ukraine. An interesting hypothesis is that the explosions were not planned to occur here. According to a “trustworthy source” quoted by idnes.cz, the second detonation was supposed to trigger at the ammunition’s destination, with the possible target of the attack being the Bulgarian weapons dealer Emilian Gebrev, who supplied weapons to Ukraine, and half a year later survived an attempted poisoning.
Whatever the reason, the scandal generated considerable backlash. Russia denied any involvement, dismissing the accusation as “absurd”, and threatens to sever diplomatic relationships. According to a diplomatic source cited by Interfax, “apparently the Czechs decided to close down their embassy in Moscow.” Meanwhile, the American Embassy expressed support, as did the UK, Latvia, Germany and Poland. The sentiment is understandable; the Czech Republic’s stance on foreign affairs is difficult to read due to the country effectively having two foreign policies. One is executed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was until recently led by the pro-western social democrat Tomáš Petříček. The other is in the hands of the presidential office, with President Miloš Zeman’s inner circle loudly expressing strongly pro-Russian and pro-Chinese views. Clashes between the two representatives of the country aside, a strong anti-Russian gesture – such as expelling their secret service personnel – can be read as a clear declaration of pro-western sympathies and could complicate possible future steps in the direction of cooperation with Russia. The question of the president’s response to the situation remains open, though: so far, his office has only confirmed that they have been informed and that they will provide a response in a week. A rather cynical yet not completely unfounded interpretation of this action presents itself: Zeman may be waiting for a response and potentially instructions from Russia. The president has criticised and attacked the Czech counter-intelligence service (BIS) for years and referred to the threat of Russian intelligence agents within the Czech Republic as “fictitious”. Not a man to admit having made a mistake, his response is more likely to consist of trying to muddle the issue.
Sputnik V and nuclear plant at stake?
The backlash from the incident is substantial, from accusations of terrorism by opposition politicians to protests in front of the Russian Embassy. This is to be expected. There are, however, also further-reaching consequences. The Czech Republic was in the middle of negotiating two possible deals with Russia: one consisted of obtaining a shipment of the Sputnik V vaccine for possible clinical testing. While the vaccine has not yet been approved by the European Medicines Agency, the new health minister, Petr Arenberger, suggested it could be used in a clinical study. This deal was supposed to be negotiated by the minister of the interior (and, temporarily, of foreign affairs), Jan Hamáček, on a trip to Moscow that was supposed to take place on Monday 19 April. Needless to say, that trip was cancelled.
The second, even bigger, deal in question is the expansion of the nuclear power plant in Dukovany. There are currently four possible contestants for the contract: companies from America, France, South Korea and the Russian Rosatom. There was also a Chinese company in the running, but it was excluded for reasons of security; the current incident means there is a good chance of Rosatom sharing its fate soon, at least according to the minister of industry. The ongoing wave of anti-Russian sentiment will make any cooperation with Russia an extremely unpopular gesture, something not many politicians are going to risk in an election year. This might actually mean the end of plans to expand the power plant – according to at least one expert, Rosatom was the only contender with the technology required to build a reactor according to the specifications.
Both deals seem to have been interrupted at an oddly convenient time. Hamáček now claims that he knew his visit to Russia would never take place and the plan was simply misdirection; the fact he was ostensibly going there to negotiate about the Sputnik vaccine while meeting with the Russian minister of industry seems to support the interpretation (or, alternatively, suggest that the real topic of the meeting would have been Dukovany).
This raises the question of why has the Russian involvement made public right now? The information about Russian involvement reached the ex-diplomat Petr Kolář three weeks ago; it is difficult to imagine that, if that was the case, the current minister of interior and foreign affairs would not have also had access to it. One possible interpretation is that the info had leaked to the media and the prime minister had to go public with it before they did. Another – unsurprisingly, the interpretation pushed by Russia – is that the whole thing is a play by the Americans, who have in the past expressed concern about the possibility of Russia building the new reactor in Dukovany and might be responding to the replacement of the demonstrably pro-western Foreign Minister Petříček with Hamáček, who has much closer ties to the pro-Russian President. Furthermore, the US has just imposed more sanctions on Russia in connection with hacker attacks; targeting Russian influence in central Europe could be a natural continuation of that.
What is next?
It is safe to assume that the Czech-Russian relations are at a historic low, at least since the election of Miloš Zeman, but the chances of it actually affecting anything beyond Sputnik and Dukovany are slim. The actual details and proof provided by BIS and the police have yet to be discussed in the Parliament, where the pro-Russian parties – communists and the alt-right SPD – will have their say. But given their minority, things are unlikely to change much. The affair will also be discussed at the European level, but the consequences of this are difficult to predict. The most that can be expected are further expulsions of diplomats.
It should also be noted that diplomatic staff being identified as spies amounts to very little in the grand scheme of things – the Russian Embassy in Prague is massive, with about 120 people working there, so throwing out 18 agents is a purely symbolic gesture and will likely be seen as such. If it were otherwise, the chances are that Zeman would try to intervene, all the outrage presented by the Russian side aside. But as long as they operate under the cover of a president unwilling to take any action against them, Russian intelligence (and sabotage) operations are safe to continue.