Head of Military Research Institute sacked

Karla Šlechtová, photo: Filip Jandourek

The head of the state’s Military Research Institute, Bohuslav Šafář, was sacked on Monday by Defence Minister Karla Šlechtová. While no reason for his firing was given online, it is not completely a bolt from the blue: Šafář had gotten into hot water for his words about the so-called production of the deadly nerve agent Novichok in the Czech Republic.

Karla Šlechtová,  photo: Filip Jandourek
In March, a brazen attack using a nerve agent from the Novichok family came close to killing former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, Great Britain. All signs pointed to Russian involvement and within days British Prime Minister Theresa May said the poison had been Russian-developed; 23 diplomats were expelled in response. Countries including the US, France, and the Czech Republic also expelled Russian officials in solidarity.

Russia, meanwhile, deflected accusations with the suggestion the deadly nerve agent could also have originated in other European countries, including the Czech Republic.

That was vehemently denied by the prime minister and the government but Czech President Miloš Zeman poured proverbial fuel on the fire when he discussed the matter on commercial broadcaster TV Barrandov.

Following the government’s denial, he stated that in fact, Novichok had been made here.

The president cited two intelligence reports, one civilian, the other military: the one he preferred, the military, stated that Novichok had been produced in the Czech Republic, the civilian report, which he discounted, did not.

The now former head of the Military Research Institute Bohuslav Šafář further added to the potential confusion by also confirming for the Czech News Agency that the substance had been produced here.

The former head of the state Military Research Institute spoke to Czech Radio earlier about his dismissal, saying he had accepted the decision.

“The Defence Minister has every right to name and to sack the head of this institute. She used her right to intervene and recalled me from my post as of this day.”

Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
The apparent problem is in the terminology used: as the substance was not isolated in micro-synthesis, it should technically not be described as “production” at all. The Novichok made here, which the Defence Ministry clarified was for training anti-chemical detection solely in the lab, was not stored and immediately destroyed.

Further, in discussing Novichok in the Czech Republic a crucial distinction should probably been clearer from the get-go: that the Novichok which had been briefly tested here was a different kind than used in the Skripal attack.

A-234 was used in the attack; A-230 was the type briefly produced here.

By that token, the issue should be a non-starter: whatever forces were trying to cast doubt on the origin of the nerve agent used in the UK, no red flags should have pointed to the Czech Republic. As a result many politicians took issue with the fact that the president discussed the details of a classified report on a commercial broadcaster at all.