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The Czechs in the Game

Things are usually mellow in Czechia, our landlocked NATO ally, but not lately. In the past few months, the Czechs have managed to pick a major fight with Russia over spying, to posture to oust their president, and to quarrel with the Poles over environmental pollution.

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In October 2014, two Russian individuals with false identities landed in Prague. In reality, their names are Aleksandr Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga of Moscow’s military intelligence (GRU) unit 29155. The duo proceeded to Vrbětice on the Slovak border, a site of a major ammunition storage area, which they blew up.

Why bother? One plausible scenario, according to the Czech intelligence, is that a Bulgarian arms dealer, Emilian Gebrev, allegedly bought ammunition from a Czech company to supply Ukraine. At that point, in 2014, the Ukrainians were fighting ferociously against the secessionists backed by the Kremlin in eastern Ukraine. Gebrev was about to transport the goodies to Kyiv. The GRU team terminated the endeavor violently, and it went after the supplier.

In 2015, Gebrev, his son, and a business partner landed in a Sophia hospital with symptoms of severe poisoning. A test detected traces of Amiton, a deadly pesticide, known in Russia as Tetram, related to a more popular Novichok.

GRU officer Sergey Fedotov was spotted in the Bulgarian capital at the time. Total coincidence, of course. One imagines that Gebrev had it coming also because of his intended takeover of a leading Bulgarian arms company, Dunarit, which was, allegedly, covertly controlled by Russia. A new owner would have meant expeditious weapons deliveries to Ukraine.

The bombing of Vrbětice seems to have been Mishkin and Chepiga’s foreign debut. Western intelligence services became more familiar with them because of their botched assassination attempt in Salisbury, Great Britain. They tried to kill a Russian defector, Sergei Skirpal, and his daughter. Skripal had spied for the United Kingdom and escaped abroad.

The GRU sent assassins who exposed their target to Novichok. The dose was insufficient, even if it seriously hurt Skripal and his daughter and killed a British bystander. The culprits then made their gateway successfully to Mother Russia.

They were Fedotov, Mishkin, and Chepiga. Russian propaganda howled about the innocent “Salisbury tourists” unjustly smeared as assassins.

Meanwhile, the Prague government investigated the Vrbětice attack for seven years. Finally, in April 2021, Czech interim foreign minister Jan Hamáček presented inconvertible proof of the perpetrators of the sabotage. It named Mishkin and Chepiga as directly responsible for the sabotage and named their superiors and accomplices. And Prague promptly ordered a score of Russian diplomats out of Czechia. Moscow immediately retaliated.

The Czechs are not of one mind about Russia. Whereas the government, under post-Communist Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, has gone all out against the Kremlin, Czechia’s post-Communist president Miloš Zeman loves his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. So, for example, when Babiš exposes Russian covert operations and supports Kiyv, Zeman serenades Moscow (and Beijing) and blasts Ukrainian nationalists for their crimes of genocide and ethnic cleansing of their Polish neighbors.

Lately, a Czech Senate committee has ruled Zeman incompetent to hold office. On the other hand, Babiš has been charged with corruption and conflict of interest charges.  In a way, this could be viewed as a Czech tit-for-tat.

In light of the political tug of war in Prague, the spat with Poland over the Turów brown coal mine seems minor. The Czechs have complained for years about the mine’s environmental pollution, in particular as far as seepage into the water table, but also other side effects of strip mining. The Poles either ignored that or were sluggish in responding. Instead of paying the Czechs off, they let the conflict fester.

So, Prague sued in the European Court of Justice. The European Union seized the opportunity to pounce on Warsaw and joined the suit. Fortunately, the Polish government has woken up and resorted to bilateral talks with the Czechs. Hopefully, a compromise can be found. It also ignored an injunction from the ECJ to close the mine.

Both the Czechs and the Poles have much more pressing issues on their plate, including energy issues, than to bicker over this. With the Biden administration refusing to sell U.S. oil and gas in Europe, the Czechs have been smiling at Brussels by effusively embracing “green energy.” The Poles, meanwhile, are thinking of going nuclear. We shall see which tack works better for national security.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 25 June 2021

A version of this article was published by Newsmax.