Last week's events concerning the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign




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Russian military attack on the Czech territory.

Ukraine seeks EU support in escalating border tensions with Russia.

The US continues to respond to Russian aggression.

With narratives like these: Kremlin's response to the Czech situation further isolates Russia on world stage.

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It was discovered by Ivan Petrovich Sidorov in a trash bin behind the American Embassy.

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Policy & Research News

Russian military attack on the Czech territory

On Saturday, 17th April 2021, the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and the interim Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Hamáček convened a press conference to announce that Russia’s military intelligence service GRU was involved in an explosion of the Czech ammunition depot in Vrbětice in 2014. In response to that, the Czech Republic has expelled 18 Russian intelligence officers from the Russian Embassy in Prague. In October and December 2014 a series of explosions at warehouses containing over 150 tons of ammunition resulted in the deaths of two civilian workers. The warehouses, located in the East of the country, had been leased from the Army of the Czech Republic by arms trading company IMEX.

According to Respekt magazine and Czech security sources, on 13th October 2014, two GRU officers from the 29155 unit arrived in Prague from Moscow using GRU-issued passports with fake names. The same passports were later used for entering the United Kingdom to attempt to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The two officers posed as visitors to the Vrbětice ammunition depot and received entry cards for the period during which the first explosion took place, on 16th October. The officers left the country on the day of the explosion, flying back to Moscow via Austria. According to the Czech Police, weapons were being moved from the facility to be sold to a Bulgarian arms dealer during their visit. Those weapons were supposed to be sold to the Ukrainian army later on. Czech Attorney General Pavel Zeman stated that law enforcement is working on the assumption that the target of the attacks was the munitions in question, and that the explosions were not supposed to take place on the territory of the Czech Republic.

In response to these findings, the Czech government has announced the expulsion of 18 Russian intelligence officials involved in the incident who were based in the Czech Republic under diplomatic cover, giving them 48 hours to leave. However, in retaliation, the Russian Federation has decided to asymmetrically expel 20 Czech diplomats from Russia, including the Deputy Ambassador, with only 24 hours notice. As a result, while Russia’s diplomatic presence has been reduced by only 14% with these expulsions, Russia’s retaliation has expelled 34% of the Czech diplomatic personnel in Russia.

Following this unprecedented escalation, on Wednesday 21st April leaders of the European Parliament affirmed their solidarity with the Czech Republic and called on member states to adopt a coordinated response. The same day, the newly appointed Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Jakub Kulhanek delivered an ultimatum to Russia to allow the Czech diplomats to return to work by 12:00 the following day or the Russian embassy in Prague would see further diplomatic expulsions “to match the current state of the Czech Embassy in Moscow.” Since the Russian government proceeded to ignore the deadline, in the late afternoon of Thursday 22nd April Minister Kulhanek announced a cap on the Russian diplomatic presence in Prague equivalent to that of the Czech embassy in Moscow. The result is a further expulsion of 63 Russian embassy staff members.

The incident may also lead to the exclusion of the Russian company Rosatom from participating in the tender for the completion of the Dukovany nuclear power plant. Czech Minister of Industry and Trade Karel Havlíček stated on 19th April that Rosatom will not receive the safety questionnaire which begins the tender process, making their participation unlikely although not impossible.

Although Russian media have seized on Prime Minister Babiš’s statement on Monday 19th April that the incident does not technically qualify as state terrorism under Czech law (a statement later backtracked and apologised for), nevertheless the facts demonstrate that the Russian Federation has conducted a military attack on the territory of a NATO member state, in a clear affront to the sovereignty of the Czech Republic.

Ukraine seeks EU support in escalating border tensions with Russia

On April 16, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for a summit under the Normandy Format with the leaders of Russia, France, and Germany to ease escalating border tensions with Russia. The request follows weeks of Russian military build-up along the Ukrainian state border and in the Azov-Black Sea theatre. EU leaders have offered their support to Ukraine, with French President Emmanuel Macron encouraging dialogue and stressing that “Ukraine’s sovereignty is under threat.”

Whereas Russian foreign ministry spokespersons have expressed moderate interest in the proposed summit as an opportunity to revive the Minsk agreements, they continue to accuse Western leaders of fearmongering and maintain that “Russian activity on Russian territory … does not threaten anybody.” Russia previously disregarded a Ukrainian invitation to talks at the OSCE on April 10. However, on April 19, French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian government advisors held initial consultations about a possible future summit.

Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of the EU member states convened a virtual meeting on April 19, at which the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba also participated. The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell stated that 150 000 Russian troops were active in the border region and reiterated that “relations with Russia, are not improving, but the contrary, the tension is increasing.”

Kuleba underscored that “individual” sanctions are no longer sufficient and urged the EU to consider imposing “sectoral sanctions” on Russia. However, both Ukraine’s request for sanctions as well as Zelensky’s more ambitious aspiration for early EU and NATO membership appear unlikely or distant prospects. Still, European officials will attempt to apply pressure. For example, German politicians have called for the Nord Stream 2 project to be terminated.

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US Developments

The US continues to respond to Russian aggression

Amid rising concerns about Russian military movements along the Ukrainian border, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken ‘accused Russia of taking “very provocative” actions’ against Ukraine during meetings with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister. As the US Navy has been conducting reconnaissance missions in international airspace over the Black Sea, on April 9, Turkey announced that the US will be sending two warships to the region, stating that they had received notice of the ships’ movements as part of the Montreux accords. However, by April 14, the plans were scrapped, allegedly “due to concerns about escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, on April 15, President Joe Biden gave televised remarks where he addressed Russian malign activities, following a call with President Vladimir Putin on April 13. During the televised address, Biden announced that he had proposed that a summit take place between the two countries, and announced actions against Russia in response to Russian interference in the 2020 Presidential Election, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the SolarWinds hack. The response to these malign activities includes additional sanctions against Russia and an executive order declaring a national emergency “with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States posed by specified harmful foreign activities of the Government of the Russian Federation.”

The sanctions target Russian sovereign debt, as well as a wide range of Russian actors, such as the head of the Internet Research Agency Yevgeny Prigozhin; other Russian-backed disinformation platforms; construction companies that worked on the Kerch Strait Bridge; and Russian intelligence agent Konstantin Kilimnik. This response was welcomed by some Members of Congress, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. House Leadership also weighed in on the sanctions package, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Whip Steny Hoyer releasing statements. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), the Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, stated that while he approves of the sanctions, he hopes that “this is only the beginning of actions taken by the Biden administration.” Others, such as Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Congressman Steve Womack (R-AR-03) called for further actions to stop Nord Stream 2.

In response to the Biden administration’s actions, Russia expelled 10 US Diplomats and imposed a travel ban for certain Biden administration cabinet officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, and Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Kremlin's Current Narrative

With narratives like these: Kremlin’s response to Czech situation further isolates Russia on world stage

Two Russian men, who are suspected to have carried out the 2018 Salisbury poisonings, have been linked to a blast that occurred at a Czech ammunition depot in 2014, killing two people. While the Czech police have said they would like to speak to the two suspects, Russia have committed to narratives of conspiracy and denial.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was quick to call Prague’s claims a fraud. Zakharova also explained why the US and the Czech Republic are now unable to employ Russian citizens at their embassies, suggesting that the contracts can be viewed as a form of spy recruitment. She went on to argue that Prague’s statements are a form of distraction, intended to divert attention from “an actual plan of a constitutional coup,” in Belarus. In claiming that Washington is ultimately behind a Czech information campaign, Zakharova has not been alone.

Head of the Russian State Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs, Leonid Slutsky, also claimed that “it is clear that the situation is induced by the far West,” commenting that European politicians “will in every way pull the attention away from the situation in Belarus.” Meanwhile, in a press conference with reporters on Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made no attempt to refer to the aforementioned conspiracy, and instead opted for straightforward denial.

Answering a reporter who questioned Peskov on the situation with Prague, he said, “We strongly disagree with these conclusions, which we consider to be inflammatory and unfriendly.” Meanwhile, the Kremlin-backed media attempted to undermine Prague’s claims and promote the idea of conspiracy.

RT made light of the situation and seemed to suggest it unlikely that the two named suspects had been involved, despite them being identified as suspects in the 2018 Salisbury poisonings. While TASS ran with the headline, “diplomat blasts West for shelling out megabucks on an anti-Russian smear campaign.” Who needs friends, with narratives like these.

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Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Center for Security Policy, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against the liberal-democratic system.

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