The Arms Merchant in the Sights of Russia’s Elite Assassination Squad

For a large arms dealer, Emilian Gebrev makes the humble figure of a confused grandfather. He prefers soccer jerseys and polo shirts to suits and ties, drives his own car, and insists that he is of little importance outside of his native Bulgaria.

But this week it became clear how important Mr. Gebrev is, at least for an elite unit of Russian activists within the Kremlin’s military intelligence service.

Days after Czech authorities accused the murder team known as Unit 29155 of being behind a series of 2014 explosions in weapons depots that killed two people, Mr Gebrev admitted that his supplies were being stored in the depots. And according to Czech officials, Mr Gebrev’s shares were the target.

The reveal is a new and baffling development as authorities say the group also tried twice to kill Mr Gebrev. According to the Bulgarian authorities, officers from the unit traveled to Bulgaria in 2015 and poisoned him with a substance similar to the same novichok nerve agent used against former spies and stubborn critics of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. After the first attempt didn’t kill him, they returned and poisoned him again.

There was always an uncertainty as to why the Russians were so determined to get Mr. Gebrev. Now the Czech case adds more evidence that the Kremlin was after him because of its business ties.

In an email to the New York Times, Mr Gebrev admitted that he was storing ammunition in the Czech arms depot and admitted something he had long denied: that his company supported Emco after 2014, when separatists were backing military equipment to Ukraine had been shipped by the Russian military and intelligence agencies started a war with Ukrainian forces.

The Russian team’s involvement in the explosions in the Czech Republic adds to a growing list of operations attributed to Unit 29155 and has further fueled a growing stalemate between Russia and the West.

On Thursday, the Czech government announced it would expel up to 60 Russian diplomats in addition to the 18 diplomats it had already thrown out of the country in response to the explosions, potentially destroying Russia’s diplomatic presence in the country. Russia has vowed to respond accordingly and has already expelled 20 officials from the Czech embassy in Moscow.

Just days after the United States announced it would expel and impose sanctions on ten Russian diplomats for a massive breach of US government computer systems that the White House accused Russian intelligence. It also coincided with Russia rallying troops at the Ukrainian border to partially withdraw this week.

Unit 29155 had been operating in Europe for years before Western intelligence agencies even discovered it. A 2019 New York Times investigation revealed the purpose of the unit and found that its officials had tried a year earlier to assassinate a former Russian spy named Sergei V. Skripal, who had been poisoned in Salisbury, England.

Numerous other examples of the unit’s craftsmanship have since been uncovered. Last year, the Times released a CIA assessment that unit officials may have been conducting a covert operation to pay bounties to a network of criminal militants in Afghanistan in exchange for attacks on US and coalition forces.

Bulgarian prosecutors charged three officers from Division 29155 of poisoning Mr Gebrev in January 2020 and issued arrest warrants against them. They also released a surveillance video of one of the attackers who apparently smeared poison on the door handles of cars owned by Mr Gebrev, his son and a senior manager in a garage near their office in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.

But Mr Gebrev asks if the unit acted alone, suggesting that Russian bombers, even if they were responsible for his poisoning, likely got into an argument with his enemies in Bulgaria.

In the summer and autumn of 2019 I met Mr. Gebrev several times and even visited one of his ammunition factories near a Bulgarian town called Montana, where mortar shells of various sizes are packed in green boxes and shipped all over the world. He never revealed his connection to the Czech bombings and was reluctant to talk about the two times he was poisoned.

“If this is supposed to be newspaper gossip, I won’t talk about it,” he said at the beginning of one of our meetings.

Mr. Gebrev also hesitated to discuss his company’s relationship with Ukraine. First, he said it stopped all ammunition exports to the country at the start of the war in 2014. On Friday, however, he admitted that Emco had signed a contract with “authorized Ukrainian companies” at the end of 2014 after the start of the war. In a previous email, Mr Gebrev insisted that the weapons stored in the Czech depots were not intended for Ukraine.

Talking about classified military information on condition of anonymity, a current and a former Ukrainian official said Emco signed a contract in 2014 to supply artillery ammunition to the Ukrainian military. To prevent Russian sympathizers in the Bulgarian government from blocking the shipments, the ammunition boxes were labeled as if they were intended for Thailand, the former official said. (Mr Gebrev denied that his company mislabelled any of its exports.)

According to the former official, the Russian government discovered the programs anyway and put pressure on the Bulgarian government to put an end to them.

Providing military support to the Ukrainian government at any time since 2014 would have played with fire.

After pro-democracy demonstrators overthrew the Kremlin’s puppet government there, Russian special forces in unmarked uniforms seized and annexed the Crimean peninsula and sparked a separatist uprising that is still ongoing in the east. Meanwhile, Russian bombers spread across the country, killing senior Ukrainian military and intelligence officials who were central to the war effort, according to Ukrainian officials.

At a press conference earlier this week, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the explosions were “an unprecedented attack on Czech soil” but made it clear that the real target was not his country but “goods belonging to a Bulgarian arms dealer”. ”

The explosions that took place in October and December 2014 were initially attributed to a technical malfunction. It is unclear how the Czech authorities concluded seven years later that the explosions were Russian acts of sabotage.

Czech security officials identified two suspects, who they said arrived in the country shortly before the first explosion, and visited the depot near the town of Vrbetice to pose as Tajik military buyers. The false names they used to enter the facility, Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, were the same as those used four years later by the two men who poisoned Mr Skripal in Salisbury.

According to Western security experts, the Czech Republic has long been a base for Russian intelligence operations. The Russian embassy in Prague, the capital, is one of the largest in the country in Europe. All 18 embassy officials identified by the Czech government in response to the explosions are believed to be spies.

One person in the embassy, ​​Viktor Budyak, received his accreditation as a deputy military attaché in early 2020. He had once served as a senior officer with Unit 29155 and has likely been involved in supporting the unit’s activities in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Eastern Europe in recent years, according to a European security officer who has followed Mr Budyak’s career.

There is evidence that the mission was a top priority for the Kremlin. On the basis of travel reports, the investigative organization Bellingcat found that Major General Andrei V. Averyanov, the commander of unit 29155, was traveling covertly to Vienna days before the explosions and possibly went to the Czech Republic in the city of Ostrava, where, according to the Czech authorities, the men, named Petrov and Boshirov, stayed on during the operation.

That Russian spies would conduct military-style sabotage operations outside of the war has shocked many in Europe.

“I think this is shocking to public opinion, not only in the Czech Republic but also for others in the European Union,” said David Stulik, senior analyst at the Prague-based European Security Policy Values ​​Center. “It sheds light on how Russia treats our countries.”

Boryana Dzhambazova reported from Sofia, Bulgaria, and Hana de Goeij from Prague.