Czech police point to Russia's GRU as investigation into ammunition explosion is shelved

Czech police point to Russia's GRU as investigation into ammunition explosion is shelved
The Russian embassy in Prague used to be a notorious spy hub until its bloated numbers were slashed after the revelation of GRU involvement in the Vrbetice explosions. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera April 30, 2024

Czech police have shelved the investigation into the 2014 explosions at the Vrbetice ammunition depot, saying it is proven that it was carried out by members of the Russian military intelligence GRU.

“It is clearly and without any doubt proven by a police investigation that explosions at both depots in Vrbetice were carried out by members of the Russian military intelligence […] known under the abbreviation GRU,” Czech Minister of Interior Vit Rakusan told media on Monday, April 29.

Some 10 years have passed since the powerful blasts, which killed two Czech citizens working at the site and caused damage to the nearby villages, but it was only in the spring of 2021 that GRU’s involvement was first openly discussed by the Czech authorities.

The revelation  caused a political sensation, transforming Czech-Russian relations, but at the time it was  played down by the then populist President Milos Zeman, who sided with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and openly cast doubt on Czech intelligence's revelations.

At a press conference on Monday, Rakusan also said that Russia is “transgressing valid international agreements” after it refused to cooperate with Czech authorities on the case.

“Bodies of the Russian Federation refused to comply with the request raised by the Czech Republic through international legal assistance, arguing that dealing with Czech request could impede the sovereignty, public order and important interests of the Russian Federation,” Rakusan summed up.

The case has reinvigorated media interest in the two GRU agents who are supposed to have been involved in the explosions and who are the same GRU agents involved in the notorious attempt at poisoning the double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in the UK – Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin.

Although the report by the Czech National Agency for Countering Organised Crime (NCOZ) states that GRU’s involvement is proven, it does not name the two agents, and NCOZ states that because the two suspects are on Russian territory and Russia refused to cooperate, it was forced to shelve the investigation.

Czech Radio’s investigative reporter Artur Janousek explained that “although there are no names in the [NCOZ] report” the investigators rely on “a whole array of indications” and that Chepiga and Mishkin were proved to be present in Czechia at the time of the explosions.      

Chepiga and Mishkin were supposed to have relied on GRU contacts inside Czechia, including the deep-cover spies, the couple Elena and Nikolai Shaposhnikov, as news outlet Insider reported at length.

The Russian couple was able to obtain Czech citizenship after they had left the collapsing Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Nikolay Shaposhnikov was previously deployed with the Soviet army in eastern Slovakia, then Czechoslovaka.  

Following the investigation into Shaposhnikov's role in the Vrbetice blasts, Czech authorities requested their extradition from Greece, where they moved. Nikolay died from a heart attack while the Greek authorities were reviewing the Czech request. 

Insider noted that for her role in the Russian sabotage operations in Bulgaria and Czechia, Elena Shaposhnikova was awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation, the highest state honour, from Putin himself in a secret ceremony in Moscow. 

The outlet also highlighted that the couple "are the first known case to ever be affiliated with [GRU] Unit 29155, whose remit is strictly kinetic," and which besides sabotage acts is also suspected to be involved in "directed energy attacks thought to be the cause of Havan Syndrome."