Sept 20, 2021
• Bellingcat first reported on the presence of members from GRU Unit 29155 in Bulgaria at the time when a Bulgarian arms manufacturer collapsed into a coma following what was identified as poisoning by an unknown substance. At that same time, the entrepreneur’s son and the production manager of his factory were also poisoned. A possible second poisoning – again with overlapping trip to Bulgaria by members of GRU Unit 29155 – appeared to have been attempted a month later, days after Gebrev and his son were released from hospital.
• We have previously identified and described operations of an elite sabotage unit within GRU Unit 29155. This unit conducts clandestine operations overseas, and we have previously identified its involvement, in addition to the series of poisonings in Bulgaria, in the annexation of Crimea (2014), destabilization attempts in Moldova (2014), a failed coup in Montenegro (2016), WADA-linked surveillance operations in Switzerland (2016-2017), possible destabilization operations in Spain during the Catalonia independence referendum (2017) and the assassination attempt on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, UK (2018).
• In the first part of this investigation, we identified a total of six operatives from this GRU unit who were directly or indirectly linked to the sabotage of ammunition depots in Czechia in October 2014 and, possibly, also in December 2014. Bellingcat also discovered that Gen. Andrey Averyanov – the commander of Unit 29155 – traveled undercover to Austria and likely on to Czechia during the time the operation took place. This marked the most senior involvement of a GRU officer in a clandestine operation identified thus far.
• This investigation was conducted in partnership with The Insider and Respekt
In the previous part of this investigation, Bellingcat revealed that the 2014 explosions of the Vrbetice munitions depot were the product of an unprecedented GRU mission in terms of scale and seniority of the participating officers. A minimum of six senior GRU undercover agents from Unit 29155 – including its commander and two officers under diplomatic cover – were deployed to Central Europe to facilitate the mission. At least two of the participants, Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga, received Russia’s highest state award – Hero of Russia – and at least four team members received free apartments from the government in the immediate aftermath of the operation, further underpinning the importance of this mission to Russian authorities.
Two open questions remain the subject of speculation by the press: First, whether the sabotage operation in Czechia in 2014 is linked to the poisoning of the arms manufacturer Emilian Gebrev and two other Bulgarian citizens in the spring of 2015 – a connection made by the Czech authorities but challenged by Mr. Gebrev’s company Emco. Second, what might have been the underlying motivation of the sabotage operation – and of the subsequent attempt on Emilian Gebrev’s life.
Data analyzed by Bellingcat supports the hypothesis that the 2014 explosions in Czechia were part of a longer-term GRU operation aimed at disrupting Ukraine’s capabilities to procure weapons and munitions critical to its defense against Russian troops and Russia-sponsored militants in the war in eastern Ukraine. The operation appears to have been initiated shortly after July 2014 when Russian authorities subordinated the disparate Russia-supported militant groups in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine under central control and military supervision of the GRU. The mission, which appears to have been run by the subversion and sabotage sub-unit of GRU’s Unit 29155, included several contiguous operations among which were the explosions at the Vrbetice depots, the assassination attempt on Emilian Gebrev, and – with increasing likelihood – at least one of the three explosions at munition depots in Bulgaria in early to mid-2015.
This version of events is corroborated by the overlap of the small sabotage team in the Czech and Bulgarian operations; the team members’ contiguous assignments in the two countries; and the links to EMCO – an important factor in Ukraine’s defense strategy in 2014 and early 2015 – in both sets of operations. Moreover, telephone records analyzed by Bellingcat show that several members of Unit 29155 communicated actively with Russian military officers deployed to the Donbas, as well as with local militant commanders fighting against the central Kyiv government, in 2014 and 2015.
This hypothesis also lends itself to reason given that at that time, Russia’s only ongoing large-scale military activity was in Ukraine. A clandestine sabotage unit run by the Ministry of Defense would naturally be expected to prioritize diminishing defensive capabilities of Russia’s adversaries in wartime.
At the same time, an analysis of correspondence between EMCO and the depot operator Imex from 2014 indicates that the target of the GRU sabotage operation may not have been (solely) Gebrev’s munition stock. The data reviewed by Bellingcat also sheds doubt on the Czech official version of events – promoted by Czech president Miloš Zeman – according to which the GRU unit had planned for the explosion to occur on Bulgarian territory after repatriation of the munition purchased by EMCO.