Czech foreign minister: investigation into alleged Russian poison plot, cyberattacks continues

Tomáš Petříček, photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio

Prague’s Lord Mayor and two colleagues – all of whom have taken symbolic steps angering the Kremlin in recent months – are currently under 24-hour police protection due to credible threats against their lives. Czech officials have confirmed that a Russian secret service agent arrived in Prague this March travelling on a diplomatic passport. They have not said whether, as reported, the agent had the deadly toxin ricin in his briefcase, or if the mayors were targets.

Tomáš Petříček,  photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio
There is widespread speculation that if Moscow indeed dispatched a secret agent to Prague carrying ricin, the poison used on turncoat Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in the UK, the intent was not to kill but to intimidate.

Studiously avoiding directly commenting on the existence of an assassination plot, Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček told Czech Radio the government has “responded appropriately” to the facts at hand, continues to consult intelligence services, and in any case will not allow the Kremlin to meddle in domestic issues.

“I am certain the government has reacted in due measure. We have rejected any attempt by Russia to interfere in our internal affairs, which is a threat to our democratically elected politicians. It is also in conflict with the Czech-Russian Friendship Agreement from 1993.”

Russian diplomats evoked that 1993 treaty over the actions of the Prague district mayors now under police protection: Ondřej Kolář, who removed a statue to Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev, whom Russia considers a hero; and Pavel Novotný, who is erecting a memorial to Soviets who fought under the Germans before joining the Prague Uprising. Russia has also recently passed a law that threatens anyone damaging war monuments, whether in Russia or abroad, with up to five years in prison.

Minister Petříček again:

“We have a number of contentious points with Russia. It is not just a case of the Konev statue, which I consider a side issue. I do not think we should pursue an aggressive policy like Russia. Our diplomacy acts accordingly, as do I personally.”

“Bilateral dispute settlement consultations are ongoing… The expulsion of diplomats is often the last step when there is evidence of a threat to state security. That is quite an exceptional step in diplomatic relations between two states.”

In response to the actions of Prague district mayors Kolář and Novotný, Russian protesters targeted the Czech embassy in Moscow and consulate in St Petersburg with smoke bombs.

Zdeněk Hřib,  photo: archive of Prague City Hall
Prague Lord Mayor Zdeněk Hřib is also under police protection. In late February, he oversaw the renaming of the square outside Russia’s embassy after the slain Putin-critic and opposition figure Boris Nemtsov.

Again, Czech officials will not comment on the nature of the threats against the three officials. That said, Minister Petříček noted that two weeks ago Czech hospitals were the target of cyberattacks, which local security experts say were linked to Russia.

“In the past, many suspicions have been shown to be valid. Not only in the field of physical security but also cyber security. In recent weeks, we have faced a number of cyberattacks, which must be investigated.

“Politicians should not point fingers – that is a job for police investigators. But we must ask who might have been interested in the Czech Republic losing the battle with Covid-19.”

Meanwhile, Petříček is reported to have warned Russian ambassador Aleksandr Zmeyevsky of serious repercussions should anything happen to the three Czech mayors. They are expected to meet in person in the coming days.