Photograph: Martin Krchnacek
Another week, another Russian diplomatic scandal. On Sunday, the Czech Republic expelled 18 Russian diplomats and embassy staff as a result of suspected Russian involvement in a 2014 explosion at an ammunition storage depot in Vrbětice that left two workers dead.
Andre Babiš, the Czech Prime Minister, stated that evidence gathered by both police and intelligence sources was “unequivocal” in its nature and laid the blame firmly at Russia’s feet. Even Miloš Zeman, the Czech Republic’s notoriously dyed-in-the-wool pro-Russian president, has supported the move, though not without the caveat that the investigation is not yet complete.
The eighteen embassy staff targeted by the expulsion are identified by Jan Hamáček, Babis’ newly appointed acting Foreign Minister, as having close ties to GRU and SVR, the overseas arms of the Russian intelligence services.
At the same time, Czech police sources have named two men in connection with the blast. The two allegedly entered the Czech Republic on Russian passports bearing the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov on October 11th 2014, travelled to the Zlin district, where Vrbětice is located, and then left the country on the same day the blast took place.
If these names seem a little familiar to some of our well-informed readers, that’s no surprise. They are, in fact, the aliases of the assassins responsible for the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal in the British city of Salisbury that left both him, his daughter and a police officer in critical condition, and an innocent woman dead.
Though as yet unproven, there is evidence indicating that at the time of the blast the Vrbětice ammunition depot was involved in the supply of arms to Ukrainian military units fighting Russian separatists in the Donbass conflict via the Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, who himself was poisoned by suspected GRU operatives in 2015.
In response to the revelation, the Czech Republic has turned to its European and NATO allies for support and has requested that the matter be discussed at the EU foreign ministers conference taking place on Monday.
The Russian question remains a tricky topic in European politics and forms an underlying fault-line within the bloc, as nations like Germany are seemingly unwilling to fully commit to a harsher anti-Russian stance due to wider geopolitical and energy security concerns. The following weeks will likely prove something of a test as to the EU’s ability to achieve a united foreign policy on a divisive issue. However, in light of the general unease in the face of massive Russian troop deployments to the Ukrainian border and Emmanuel Macron’s comments regarding the need for “red lines” when dealing with Russia, the question will not be which member states offer their support, but instead the limits that they place on it.