REUTERS

Data analyzed by Bellingcat supports the hypothesis that the 2014 explosions in Czechia were part of a longer-term GRU military intelligence agency's operation aimed at disrupting Ukraine's capabilities to procure weapons and munitions critical to its defense against Russian troops and Russian proxy forces in the Donbas war.

The operation appears to have been initiated shortly after July 2014 when Russian authorities subordinated the disparate Russia-supported armed groups in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine under central control and military supervision of the GRU, investigative journalists with Bellingcat have revealed.

The mission, which appears to have been run by the subversion and sabotage sub-unit of GRU's Unit 29155, included several contiguous operations among which were the explosions at the Vrbetice depots, the assassination attempt on Bulgarian arms trader Emilian Gebrev, and – with increasing likelihood – at least one of the three explosions at munition depots in Bulgaria in early to mid-2015.

Read alsoCzech ammo blast likely staged by Russia to disrupt arms supply to Ukraine – mediaThis hypothesis also lends itself to reason given that at that time, Russia’s only ongoing large-scale military activity was in Ukraine. A clandestine sabotage unit run by the ministry of defense would naturally be expected to prioritize diminishing defensive capabilities of Russia's adversaries in wartime.

Gebrev's Bulgarian company EMCO recognized as early as February 2019 it sold ammunition to Ukraine in late 2014, and according to two sources that in 2014 and 2015 were close to Ukraine military procurement who requested anonymity to comment on a confidential matter, it played a crucial role in boosting Ukraine's defense capability at a time when its territorial integrity was at stake.

Crucially, according to these sources EMCO was one of only two EU companies that specialized in manufacturing state-of-the-art munitions compatible with Soviet-era weapons, especially in the large-bore (120 mm to 152 mm) range. According to one of the sources, in 2014 there were only two manufacturing plants that produced compatible munitions, and "the other company was under effective Russian control," leaving EMCO as the only possible foreign-based provider of munitions for Ukraine's Army.

One of the sources also described a practice by Russian military intelligence which consisted of approaching arms traders who had ammunition compatible with Ukraine's artillery, and offering them "significantly above market prices"  to purchase their stock, in order to prevent Ukraine's access to the market. The source also described three shiploads of munition manufactured or upgraded by EMCO that had been successfully imported into Ukraine, although the source did not specify if EMCO itself sold to Ukraine or if the ammunition came via a third party.

EMCO confirmed to Bellingcat that Ukraine imported its ammunition in the 120 mm to 152 mm range for Ukraine in the period December 2014 – February 2015, based on a contract signed on 10 November 2014. The company says part of the contractual commitment remained unrealized, as it says it abstained from shipping to Ukraine after the February 2015 signing of the Minsk-2 de-escalation agreement.

Bellingcat obtained a list of the munition that had been contracted with EMCO in November 2014 from one of the former Ukrainian procurement-linked sources. Most of the ammunition including the 5,000 large-bore 152 mm rounds was exported in January 2015, with the last shipment realized on 26 February 2015. Only the 152 mm rounds were manufactured by EMCO; while the rest of the ammunition was procured from other Bulgarian state-owned arms manufacturers.

The total value of the contract was over EUR 25 million ($30 million). However, not all of the contracted volume was sold to Ukraine. The last two line-items in the list – which accounted for nearly EUR 20 million of the contract's value – were never exported.

Background

  • Earlier, Bellingcat revealed that the 2014 explosions of the Vrbetice munitions depot were the product of an unprecedented GRU mission in terms of scale and seniority of the participating officers.
  • A minimum of six senior GRU undercover agents from Unit 29155 – including its commander and two officers under diplomatic cover – were deployed to Central Europe to facilitate the mission.
  • At least two of the participants, Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga, received Russia’s highest state award – Hero of Russia –  and at least four team members received free apartments from the government in the immediate aftermath of the operation, further underpinning the importance of this mission to Russian authorities.