Hybrid War in Czechia: The most severe violation of state sovereignty since the end of the Cold War
Czechia has become the victim of Russian state terrorism. The Czech response to expel 18 Russian diplomats was just the beginning of the biggest conflict between Moscow and Prague in the modern history of both countries, which escalated into an unprecedented expelling of up to 70 Russian embassy staff from the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, the Vrbětice affair is only the tip of the iceberg of influence operations which is Russia, as a part of the hybrid war, conducting against both – the Czech Republic and NATO.
The Czech Republic had become a target of Russian state terrorism which goes far beyond the Salisbury incident from 2018. Indeed, this appalling crime holds two terrifying primacies.
Firstly, it is the biggest attack on the country in its modern history.
Secondly, it is the most violent breach of the sovereignty of the EU and NATO members since the end of the Cold War.
According to the Czech Security Information Service, agents of the Russian military intelligence services known as GRU (Главное Разведывательное Управление) caused a massive explosion of 58 tons of ammunition in the Vrbětice ammunition depot area in 2014, killing two Czech citizens, threatening the safety of hundreds of people in the nearby villages and causing damages in tens of millions of Euros.
Czech media have previously reported that arms and ammunition at the depot might have been destined for either Ukrainian forces fighting pro-Russian rebels or rebels in Syria fighting the Russian-backed government.
Shocking details of the incident were shared with the public by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and acting Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Hamáček on Saturday last week. The president Miloš Zeman has, on the contrary, taken his time to comment on the Vrbětice affair. A week later, in his official speech, he undermined the credibility of the evidence about the GRU involvement presented by the Czech secret services. Zeman is known for often taking pro-Russian views. He was in favour of purchase of Russian Sputnik V vaccines and also advocated for inviting Russian Rosatom to take part in a tender for expanding the Czech nuclear power station Dukovany.
Czechia’s partners and allies, including the rest of the V4 countries, the United States, the United Kingdom and the Baltic countries, have condemned Russian actions and have expressed their immediate support. Slovakia, Romania and the Baltic countries have even expelled Russian diplomats to show solidarity with Prague. Poland and Bulgaria are considering the same.
Similarly, the EU and NATO stand firmly behind the Czechs following statements by High-Representative Joseph Borrell and the alliance’s General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg. The coordinated response is being heavily discussed on both international platforms since Monday last week.
Escalation of the conflict
In response to the appalling crime, Prague has expelled 18 members of the Russian Embassy identified spies from either GRU or the foreign intelligence services (SVR).
At least half of the expelled Russians held high positions, among others First Secretary and former spokesperson Alexey Kolmakov, who has been very active in the Koněv affair (when the city council decided to dismantle an old statue of a Soviet Marshall who “liberated” Prague in 1945), and First Secretary and Deputy Chief of Mission Alexandr Antonov, also known as “the man with ricin” in the similarly-named affair (both Russian operations will be explained in the following sections).
This number might seem high, and indeed it is the boldest act of resistance against Russian bullying since 1989. Nevertheless, it must be viewed in a broader context.
Firstly, the number is lower than in the case of the Salisbury incident when after an attempted assassination of former double agent Sergey Skripal, London has expelled 23 Russian diplomats.
Secondly, the Russian Embassy in Prague has 129 employees, where a significant part ofhalf of them are considered to be members of the Russian intelligence services.
Unfortunately, the Kremlin has escalated the tension by expelling 20 Czechs (including 16 diplomats) from the Czech embassy in Moscow, which holds all together 58 employees – 26 diplomats and 32 staffers. With only ten diplomats left, the function of the Czech embassy is set to be paralysed.
Thus, on Wednesday evening, Russia was given an ultimatum to allow the return of the Czech diplomats back to Moscow. Otherwise, Prague will decrease the numbers in the Russian Embassy to be equal to the number of people in its Czech counterpart (which would under current conditions mean expelling up to 70 people).
The Kremlin has decided not to comply with the given conditions leaving the Czech Republic with no option but to come through. Moscow has been given time until the end of May to withdraw its people from the country.
This decision, even though very radical, will not be unprecedented. In 1971, the United Kingdom expelled 105 soviet agents, efficiently disrupting Soviet intelligence operations in Britain for the following two decades.
One element of hybrid war
Even though it is definitively the most violent and severe violation of Czech sovereignty in the country's modern history, the Czech Republic is in fact a common target of Russian hybrid operations. Indeed, the Vrbětice affair can be regarded as another sad evidence that Russia is in an open hybrid conflict with NATO and its allies.
Just last year, Prague saw two unprecedented intelligence operations which reached the highest ranks in Czech politics – the Koněv and the Ricin affairs. The decision to remove an old statue of a Soviet Marshall Ivan Koněv from a square in Prague has led to a chain of international incidents such as chains of disinformation campaigns, cyber-attacks and the mobilisation of Czech pro-Kremlin far-left and far-right extremists.
The Russian embassy is believed to have played an important role in the culmination of the conflict in 2020.
It all led to direct intimidation and death threats of Czech political representatives – namely mayor Ondřej Kolář (mayor of Prague 6 which decided to remove the statue of Koněv) and mayor of Prague Zdeněk Hřib (who supported Kolář and is generally considered to be one of the most outspoken critics of Kremlin in the Czech political elite).
The Koněv affair is indirectly connected to the Ricin affair when the media reported that a Russian intelligence agent flew to the Czech Republic equipped with the poisonous substance Ricin. His mission was believed to be to punish Czech politicians for their disobedience against Russia. As a result, both politicians were assigned police protection.
However, later it turned out that this whole event was a part of an information operation to intimidate the Czech public. In response, the Czech Republic expelled two Russian diplomats.
Nevertheless, even these two affairs – both happened just last year – present just the tip of the iceberg of all the influence operations the Kremlin is conducting in the V4 countries. Furthermore, the Vrbětice and other affairs prove that Russia still regards Eastern (and Central) European countries as its satellites whom it expects absolute obedience from and does not think twice to meddle with their internal affairs brutally.
Russia never has and never will perceive the countries of the post-Soviet space as equals but always as former colonies to be controlled or re-conquered. Its attempts to punish and bring to heel the Czech Republic fits this pattern.
Adéla Klečková is a non-residential fellow for the German Marshall Fund, Head Analyst at the Společně pro Česko think tank.