Police suspect local employee met with GRU unit head before Vrbětice attack

Vrbětice ammunition depot after the explosions

New information has come to light regarding the October 2014 explosion at the Vrbětice munitions depot, which Czech intelligence traced last year to Russia’s military intelligence service GRU. Three confidential sources told Czech Radio and the weekly Respekt that Czech police are investigating one of the employees of the company that rented the space at the time of the explosion. He may have met with the head of the GRU unit and provided support for the two agents that are believed to have carried out the attack.

Czech police are investigating Nikolay Shaposhnikov, an employee of the weapons transportation firm Imex Group which was renting the Vrbětice munitions depot at the time. Three confidential sources have told Czech Radio and the weekly magazine Respekt that police are looking into whether Mr Shaposhnikov met with Andrei Averyanov, the commander of the GRU’s special unit 29155 which allegedly carried out the Vrbětice attack.  Both the National Centre for Combating Organised Crime and the Security Information Service are currently investigating a possible meeting between the two either in Greece or Portugal, the sources told journalists.

Asked by Czech Television, Mr Shaposhnikov denied knowing the head of the unit or any other agents. However, a source acquainted with the investigation told Czech Radio’s flagship news channel Radiožurnál that the police have evidence of the two men exchanging emails and that it is likely that they also met in person. This is backed up by the fact that both men were in the same location at the same time, another source told Radiožurnál.

Alexander Mishkin,  Anatoly Chepiga | Photo: Czech Police

Martin Malůš, the state procurator tasked with the case, told Czech Television that investigators believe that it was impossible for the GRU agents to carry out the operation without some sort of help from within the Czech Republic.

The two agents accused of being responsible for the explosion are GRU members Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, the same individuals that British intelligence tied to the poisoning Sergei Skripal in 2018. The two men were scheduled to visit Vrbětice in October 2014, at the time of the attack, traveling under false names and passports and posing as inspectors. Radiožurnál’s sources said that police believe it was Shaposhnikov who added in the specific date of when the two men were to arrive at the munitions depot, into the company database. Whether the two GRU agents actually ended up entering the facility has not yet been proven, but both were awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation medal shortly after the incident.

Nikolay Shaposhnikov served as a professional soldier in the Russian Army. He now has a Czech passport. He still works as a specialist for Imex Group where he is responsible for handling specific trades, the company lawyer told Czech Radio. According to Jiří Bernatík, who is the uncle of the owner of the company and also worked at Imex Group, Mr Shaposhnikov was a weapons and explosives consultant who was also responsible for securing new clients.

Explosion of 50 tonnes of munitions at a depot in Vrbětice in Moravia in October 2014 | Photo: HZS ČR

Czech Radio’s investigative team further reports that the police are looking into whether Shaposhnikov and Averyanov, who is considered to have been the mastermind of the GRU’s alleged Vrbětice operation, may have also met around the time that the attack itself was carried out. Both individuals were within driving distance of Vrbětice when the explosion took place – Averyanov in a Slovak spa, Shaposhnikov on a visit to a relative in Northern Moravia.

The role of the owner of the company, Jiří Bernatík jr., also remains unclear. Data from his mobile phone indicates that, the day before the attack, he was within 40 minutes distance of the Corrado Hotel in Ostrava where the two GRU agents were staying.

Neither the National Agency for Combating Organised Crime of the Czech Police, nor the Security Information Service wish to provide information or comment on the investigation at this time.

The Vrbětice munitions depot, which lies near the South Moravian city of Zlín, was hit by two explosions in 2014.  The first, explosion took place in October and caused the death of two people.  Around a billion crowns have since been spent on cleaning up the blast area. In April 2021, the Czech government announced that the country’s Security Information Service and police strongly suspect Russia’s Russia’s GRU of being responsible for the attack.

Authors: Thomas McEnchroe , Markéta Chaloupská , Artur Janoušek
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