The Arms Merchant in the Sights of Russia’s Elite Assassination Squad

For a major arms merchant, Emilian Gebrev cuts the modest figure of a bemused grandfather, preferring soccer jerseys and polo shirts to suits and ties, driving his own car and insisting that he is of little importance outside his native Bulgaria.

But this week it became clear just how significant Mr. Gebrev is, at least to an elite squad of Russian operatives within the Kremlin’s military intelligence service.

Days after the Czech authorities accused the assassination team, known as Unit 29155, of being behind a series of 2014 explosions at weapons depots that killed two people, Mr. Gebrev acknowledged that his supplies were stored at the depots. And according to Czech officials, Mr. Gebrev’s stocks were the target.

The revelation is a new and startling development, given that the authorities say the group also twice tried to kill Mr. Gebrev. In 2015, the Bulgarian authorities say that officers with the unit traveled to Bulgaria and poisoned him with a substance resembling the same Novichok nerve agent used against former spies and obstinate critics of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. After the first attempt failed to kill him, they returned and poisoned him again.

many as 60 Russian diplomats on top of the 18 it had already kicked out of the country in response to the explosions, potentially dismantling Russia’s diplomatic presence in the country. Russia has vowed to respond accordingly, and has already expelled 20 officials from the Czech Embassy in Moscow.

impose sanctions as punishment for a huge breach of U.S. government computers systems that the White House blamed on Russia’s foreign intelligence agency. It also coincided with Russia massing troops on the Ukraine border, only to partly pull back this week.

For years, Unit 29155 operated in Europe before Western intelligence agencies even discovered it. A 2019 investigation by The New York Times revealed the purpose of the unit and showed that its officers had carried out the attempted assassination a year earlier of a former Russian spy named Sergei V. Skripal, who was poisoned in Salisbury, England.

Numerous other examples of the unit’s handiwork have since been exposed. Last year, the Times revealed a C.I.A. assessment that officers from the unit may have carried out a secret operation to pay bounties to a network of criminal militants in Afghanistan in exchange for attacks on U.S. and coalition troops.

Bulgarian prosecutors charged three officers from Unit 29155 with poisoning Mr. Gebrev in January 2020 and issued warrants for their arrest. They also released surveillance video of one of the assailants apparently smearing poison on the door handles of cars belonging to Mr. Gebrev, his son and a senior manager in a garage near their offices in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.

But Mr. Gebrev questions whether the unit acted alone, suggesting that even if Russian assassins were responsible for his poisoning, they were likely in cahoots with his enemies in Bulgaria.

Bellingcat determined that Maj. Gen. Andrei V. Averyanov, the commander of Unit 29155, traveled undercover to Vienna days before the explosions and possibly drove into the Czech Republic to the town of Ostrava where, according to the Czech authorities, the men using the names Petrov and Boshirov stayed during the operation.

That Russian spies would carryout military-style sabotage operations outside wartime has shaken many in Europe.

“I think for public opinion, not only in the Czech Republic, but for others in the European Union, this is shocking,” said David Stulik, a senior analyst at the Prague-based European Values Center for Security Policy. “It sheds light on how Russia is treating our countries.”

Boryana Dzhambazova contributed reporting from Sofia, Bulgaria, and Hana de Goeij from Prague.

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Czechs Blame 2014 Blasts at Ammunition Depots on Elite Russian Spy Unit

The Czech Republic on Saturday blamed a series of mysterious 2014 explosions at Czech ammunition depots on an elite unit of Russia’s military intelligence service — a group that Britain has linked to a 2018 attack with a nerve agent on a former Russian spy in Salisbury, England.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis said at a Prague news conference that his government would respond by expelling 18 Russian diplomats, whom it had identified as spies. He said there was “clear evidence,” assembled by the Czech intelligence and security services, showing “reasonable suspicion” that the Russian group, known as Unit 29155, had been involved in the blasts in late 2014, which killed two Czechs.

The announcement underscored the breadth of Russia’s efforts to expand its influence and pursue aggressive actions around the world, including military-style operations, assassinations and cyberattacks.

The elite Russian unit has operated for at least a decade, focusing on subversion, sabotage and assassination beyond Russia’s borders. It first came to light after the March 2018 attack in Salisbury, England, on a turncoat Russian ex-spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, using the nerve agent Novichok. Both fell gravely ill but later recovered.

The Czech police also released photographs of the two men, who looked like the men shown in photographs released in 2018 by Britain. The police said the men had used at least two different identities and asked anyone who had seen them or knew anything about their movements in the Czech Republic to call a hotline.

Mr. Babis, the prime minister, did not accuse the two Russians directly of involvement in the arms warehouse explosions, but he said there was “unequivocal evidence” that agents working for Russian military intelligence had been involved.

“Czech Republic is a sovereign state and must react accordingly to those unprecedented revelations,” Mr. Babis added.

The Czech Republic, a member of NATO, has expelled Russian diplomats in the past but has never ordered as many out as it did on Saturday. The expulsions came just days after Washington expelled 10 Russian diplomats over interference in last year’s U.S. presidential election and the hacking of computer systems used by government agencies.

Poland, another NATO member, also expelled Russia diplomats in recent days, ordering three to leave on Thursday in what Warsaw said was a gesture of “solidarity” with the United States.

The Czech action, however, was more severe and unusually sweeping.

“I am sorry that Czech-Russian relations will suffer, however, the Czech Republic must react,” the acting foreign minister, Jan Hamacek, said in Prague.

What caused the ammunition depot blasts, which began in the village of Vlachovice and resumed at a nearby depot in December 2014, has never been fully explained.

They coincided with efforts by Ukraine to increase its supply of weapons from abroad as it struggled to recover eastern territory seized by Russian-backed rebels in the summer of 2014.

Czech media reports on Saturday also linked the blasts to what they said may have been a Russian drive to halt the delivery of Czech-made weapons to forces fighting in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Moscow.

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