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POLITICS

Diplomats with a bomb: How Russia's GRU blew up an arms depot in Czechia

According to a recent investigation by the Czech authorities, Russian foreign intelligence officers Petrov and Boshirov – Mishkin and Chepiga, the Skripals’ infamous poisoners – were also behind the 2014 explosions of arms depots in the Czech Republic. The blasts killed two people and destroyed 150 tonnes of ammunition. In addition to evidence of Mishkin and Chepiga's involvement in these acts of sabotage, we unearthed many new details. Thus, the operation was orchestrated by Col. Gen. Averyanov, the commander of the GRU's Unit 29155, who had flown to the Czech Republic with a false ID. In total, the operation involved at least six participants, with two under diplomatic cover.

This is a joint investigation by The Insider and Bellingcat with contributions from Der Spiegel and Respekt.cz

RU

Preparation

On October 4, 2014, Col. Gen. Andrei Averyanov, the commander of GRU’s Unit 29155, traveled to Lisbon undercover with an unimaginative false ID that read “Andrei Overyanov”. Having nothing to do in Lisbon (apparently, he flew there only because of his visa), he set out for Geneva the same day. There, he met up with his subordinates, officers from the same military unit: Denis Sergeev (alias Sergei Fedotov), who would later become involved in the Skripals poisoning, and Egor Gordienko (alias Georgy Gorshkov).

Col. Gen. Averyanov (left) and Egor Gordienko
Col. Gen. Averyanov (left) and Egor Gordienko

The exact whereabouts of their meeting in Geneva is unclear, but The Insider's and Bellingcat's earlier investigations already revealed that Denis Sergeev's phone records suggested he’d frequented the vicinity of Chamonix, an Alpine resort 60 kilometers away from Geneva – and the location of the unit’s logistics base, as the French media later wrote, citing Western intelligence services. In all likelihood, this is where the GRU officers met with their future accomplices in the Czech operation.

Two days later, Averyanov returned to Moscow and held an urgent unit meeting on October 7 at the GRU headquarters on Khoroshevskoye Highway. Before the end of the day, his subordinates had already booked flights to Europe for the Czech special operation. Averyanov booked a flight to Vienna for October 13 with a return on October 15, while Mishkin, Chepiga, and their colleague Lt. Col. Nikolai Yezhov (alias Nikolai Kononikhin) decided to arrive two days prior, on October 11. Mishkin and Chepiga flew to Prague without a return ticket, and Yezhov flew to Vienna, planning to return with Averyanov on the 15th.

Two more officers from Unit 29155, Alexei Kapinos and Evgeny Kalinin, flew to Budapest under the cover of diplomats carrying diplomatic mail on October 10, 2014, and like everyone else, they had return tickets bought for October 15, 2014.

Therefore, according to the initial plan, the operation was scheduled for October 13-15. But something went wrong.

The explosion

“Petrov” and “Boshirov” landed in Prague on October 11, checked into a hotel, and even posted photos on social media from the center of the old town, posing as tourists. Averyanov and Yezhov arrived in Prague the same day, and Yezhov rented a car till October 15.

Chepiga’s photo of Prague’s tourist attractions
Chepiga’s photo of Prague’s tourist attractions

A little later, “Boshirov” and “Petrov” left Prague for Ostrava, which is about an hour's drive from the munition depot. Averyanov's phone records suggest that his device connected to Austrian networks just a couple of hours after his arrival on October 13 and did not reconnect until around noon on October 16. Yezhov must have picked up Averyanov at the airport and also went to Ostrava, which is just over a three-hour drive from Vienna.

Before the sabotage, the GRU officers tried to resolve the problem peacefully. Using the fake identities of Ruslan Tabarov and Nicolai Popa, Chepiga and Mishkin contacted Imex, a weapons storage company in Vrbetice, and requested access to a restricted area of the depot for the period from October 13 to 17, 2014, posing as potential buyers. Shortly thereafter, Imex representatives contacted Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, who stored some of his weapons in this depot, and told him he had prospective buyers who wanted to meet with him before October 15. Gebrev said he wasn't interested (you’ll learn more about Gebrev and his role in supplying Ukraine in the next part of our investigation).

Judging by the tickets they bought, the GRU agents had planned on getting the job done by the 15th but ran into a hitch and had to delay for a day. At 9:25 a.m. on October 16, 2014, an explosion shook Munition Depot No. 16 in Vrbetice, destroying 58 tonnes of ammunition, demolishing dozens of buildings, and killing two Imex employees, Vratislav Havranek and Ludek Petrik.

Minutes after the explosion, Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin boarded their Aeroflot flight from Vienna to Moscow. The flight departed at 10:05.

The two other GRU officers, Col. Gen. Averyanov and Lt. Col. Nikolai Yezhov, returned to Vienna later that day and headed straight to the airport. Averyanov bought a new ticket at Schwechat Airport at 18:17 and flew back to Moscow at 22:46 the same day. Nikolai Yezhov stayed in Austria and made several pre-bookings for a return flight between October 27 and November 2, eventually flying back to Moscow on November 3, 2014.

Read more about how and why the GRU went after Emilian Gebrev's weapons in the next part of the investigation


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