“The priority is to protect serious targets”: “Russian” sabotage highlights security concerns

Moscow is very likely to blame for a recent failed arson attack on city buses in Prague, the Czech prime minister said on Monday. Petr Fiala said the foiled plot was part of a hybrid war Russia is waging against Czechia. But what can the authorities do to combat this kind of “low level” terrorism?

Last Wednesday night a Spanish-speaking man in his 20s from a South American state is believed to have attempted to set fire to buses at a Prague transport authority depot in the district of Klíčov.

Alert staff doused the flames and damage was kept to around CZK 200,000.

On Saturday the police arrested the suspect, who they said had been in Czechia for five days.

Petr Fiala | Photo: Office of Czech Government

Two days later the Czech prime minister, Petr Fiala, revealed details of the case – and pointed the finger at the Kremlin.

“There is a suspicion that this attack was organised and financed by Russia probably. It’s part of the hybrid war that Russia is waging against us, and which we must defend ourselves against and stop. Russia is repeatedly trying to sow unrest and to undermine citizens’ trust in our state.”

Mr. Fiala said Czechia had previous experience of this, referencing 2014 explosions at ammunition depots in Vrbětice that were carried out by Russia’s military intelligence and left two dead.

The PM also said the failed arson attack had an international context.

“In recent weeks information has appeared in a number of European states that the Russian secret services could be involved in sabotage, around the whole of Europe. For example, fires in Warsaw, where Poland’s prime minister, Tusk, expressed suspicion of the Russian secret services. Also an arson attack on an IKEA store in Lithuania, and other cases.”

Vrbětice ammunition depot after the explosions | Photo: Czech Police

Given the broad nature of such targets, what can the Czech authorities do to combat or contain such acts of terrorism? That’s a question I put to Vojtěch Bahenský of the Department of Security Studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University in Prague.

“In principle this is not something you can stop altogether, not least because it’s such a low level. An attempt to attack buses in a depot – let’s be honest, that’s not necessarily very serious sabotage. That’s extremely low level.

“If we are looking at such low level targets, there is essentially an unlimited number of them. And then you are combatting it as any other criminality.

“In relation to the Russian role in that, we can also rely to some degree on intelligence information, intelligence gathering, intelligence from our allies, which may warn us about something such as this happening.

“But I think that attempts to completely stop something like this are impossible.

“At the same time, I think it shouldn’t even be a priority. The priority is to protect the targets which would be really serious.

“If I compare it, I’m not that concerned if somebody tries to bring down a bus in a depot, causing CZK 200,000 damage. That’s negligible.

“But if the Russians would be planning, I don’t know, a classic terrorist act like blowing up a bus full of people that would be quite serious. That’s something that I think should really be stopped and where the resources should be allocated.

Illustration photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

“It’s similar with any sabotage of, I don’t know, an ammunition plant or something like that. These would be really serious targets.

“But of those targets there are much fewer, and they can be better protected.”

When you say these are low level targets – the bus depot, or a shop in Lithuania – what does Russia have gain from that kind of attack?

“Honestly, I cannot say what they think is the gain. We can only speculate on that, I think.

“Partly they might want to somehow bring the war home to us, in some ways, because they perceive the war in Ukraine as a war on the West.

“In Europe you can hear quite often that we need to bring the war to Russia and they may feel that this is sort of retribution for that: That they will make the European public, or the Czech public, feel their participation, from their perspective, in the war in Ukraine.

“To what degree will it be effective? Possibly. I think it will depend a lot on how the Czech government and the Czech media will frame the issue. Because by itself burning a bus in a depot is not the sort of thing that would make national headlines for days.

“So I’m quite sceptical of the real impact. It might have some symbolic value, but I think the only thing they might pursue is trying to scare the Czech population, to make it feel vulnerable. This is like the classic terrorist handbook.

“But whether it will work I’m quite sceptical. At least so far, based on what we’ve seen, which was very little.”