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.