The Czech Republic on Saturday accused the Russian military intelligence services (GRU) of being behind a deadly explosion in an ammunition depot in 2014. Prague even designated a very specific GRU cell – the unit 29155 – which has been a hot topic for the past few years.
Until recently, the explosion of an ammunition depot in the Czech Republic in 2014 was considered a regrettable accident that claimed the lives of two people. But since Saturday, April 17, it has been at the center of a new escalation of tensions between the European Union and Russia.
Prague has indeed claimed to have evidence implicating Russian intelligence services in the explosion and has expelled 18 Russian diplomats accused of espionage. Russia disputed the charges on Sunday and in turn expelled twenty employees of the Czech embassy in Moscow.
On Monday, the entire European Union risks finding itself drawn into this standoff with Moscow. Prague must present to the European Council of Foreign Ministers its evidence of Russian sabotage of the ammunition warehouse.
From Moldavia to the Czech Republic, via Savoy
Other European countries will probably listen to the Czech presentation very carefully. Because Prague claims that the Russian spies at work on its soil are the same who were accused of trying to poison the ex-double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018, during a scandal that had deeply tarnished Russian-British relations.
Agents who belong to Unit 29155, a very special branch of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service. If the Czech Republic is right, the explosion of 2014 would become another entry in the black ledger of this unit’s misdeeds on European soil.
Since the Skripal affair, media such as the investigation site Bellingcat or the German magazine Der Spiegel, and authorities in several countries – notably the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Bulgaria – have managed to link several tragic events which appeared disconnected from each other in the activities of Unit 29155.
These agents are suspected of having organized a political destabilization operation in Moldova in 2016, of having actively participated in a Proserbian coup attempt in Montenegro in the same year, and of having twice tried to poison a hostile arms dealer in Moscow, Bulgaria in 2015.
Spies from Unit 29155 were also spotted by the Spanish authorities during the 2017 demonstrations for the independence of Catalonia. They would even have established a “rear base” for their operations in Savoy, according to a survey by Le Monde, published in December 2019.
What give the impression of an ultramobile cell, capable of being mobilized at any moment to strike anywhere on command from Moscow. These agents have been described by the New York Times as “elite soldiers”, as well versed in the art of targeted assassination as in political propaganda operations, which would form the armed wing of the “destabilization campaign. of Europe “from Moscow.
A unit responsible for “doing the dirty work”
However, this specter of a Russian shadow army in the heart of Europe tasked with hunting down and eliminating Moscow’s enemies abroad perhaps tends to overestimate their power to do harm. They are, of course, “very well trained soldiers who have all been through the Spetsnaz. [les forces spéciales russes, NDLR]”, confirms Mark Galeotti, British specialist in Russian intelligence services and director of Mayak Intelligence, a consultancy firm on security issues in Russia, contacted by France 24. For the most part, they distinguished themselves during the wars in Chechnya or on the occasion of the invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
But it is also a very small cell. “They are about twenty, the same since the creation of the unit, which probably dates back to 2008”, notes Gerhard Mangott, specialist in security issues in Russia at the University of Innsbruck (Austria), contacted by France 24 “It is little compared to other branches of Russian intelligence,” confirms Mark Galeotti.
Above all, they are “probably not superagents capable of doing everything as has been suggested,” says the director of Mayak Intelligence. It would rather be a unit “specialized in sabotage and assassination, responsible for doing the dirty work”, underlines this expert, author of several books on the question.
In other words, Moscow only involves them when “the result matters more than the way”, notes Mark Galeotti. Unlike the agents of the FSB, the main successor to the famous KGB, or of the SVR (the Russian equivalent of the CIA), renowned for their discretion, the members of unit 29155 “do not have finesse and, in a very military, they will do everything to achieve their objective, even if it means not being very subtle in their modus operandi, ”he explains.
This is why their failures, such as the failed assassination attempt against Sergei Skripal or the abortive coup d’état in Montenegro, can “appear unprofessional and have left traces allowing us to trace back to the perpetrators”, adds Gerhard Mangott.
But in the end, these few resounding failures mean little to Moscow. First, because we “do not know how many other missions have been carried out”, recalls Gerhard Mangott. And then, even in failure, it allows Russia to send a signal to the other European powers. “It is a way of indicating to them that it can act on their soil ‘, affirms Mark Galeotti. Because we must not forget, underlines this expert, that” since 2014 [et l’invasion de la Crimée], Russia believes it is in conflict with the West “.