‘Priority is to protect serious targets’: ‘Russian’ sabotage highlights security concerns

Last Wednesday evening, a 20-year-old Spanish-speaking man from a South American state is believed to have tried to set fire to buses at a transport authority depot in Prague’s Klíčov district.

Alerted workers extinguished the flames, and the damage was estimated at approximately CZK 200,000.

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

Two days later, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala revealed details of the case and pointed the finger at the Kremlin.

“There is suspicion that this attack was probably organized and financed by Russia. This is part of the hybrid war that Russia is waging against us and which we must defend against and stop. “Russia repeatedly tries to sow unrest and undermine citizens’ trust in our country.”

Fiala said the Czech Republic had already had such experience, citing the 2014 explosions at ammunition depots in Vrbětice by Russian military intelligence, which resulted in the death of two people.

The Prime Minister also said that the failed arson attack had an international context.

“In recent weeks, information has emerged in many European countries that Russian special services may be involved in sabotage across Europe. For example, the fires in Warsaw, where Polish Prime Minister Tusk expressed suspicions about the Russian secret services. Also the arson of the IKEA store in Lithuania and other cases.”

Given the broad nature of such targets, what can the Czech authorities do to combat or deter such acts of terrorism? I asked this question to Vojtěch Bahenski from the Department of Security Studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University in Prague.

“It’s basically impossible to stop it completely, especially because it’s so low. Attempted attack on buses in the depot – let’s be honest, this is not necessarily a very serious sabotage. This is an extremely low level.

“If we look at targets this low, there are essentially an unlimited number of them. And then you fight it like any other crime.

“Because of Russia’s role in this process, we can also rely to some extent on intelligence, intelligence gathering, intelligence from our allies that can warn us about something like this.

“But I think trying to completely stop something like this is impossible.

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

“If I compare it, I’m not too worried if someone tries to crash a bus in the depot, causing damage of CZK 200,000. It’s negligible.

“But if the Russians were planning, I don’t know, a classic terrorist act like blowing up a bus full of people, that would be pretty serious. In my opinion this really needs to be put to an end and where resources should be allocated.

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

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

When you say these are low-level targets – a bus depot or a store in Lithuania – what does Russia gain from this type of attack?

“Honestly, I can’t tell you what they think the gain is. I think we can only speculate on this.

“Partly, they may want to bring the war closer to us in some way because they see the war in Ukraine as a war against the West.

“In Europe, they hear quite often that we have to bring the war to Russia, and they may feel that this is a kind of revenge for this: that they will make the European public opinion or the Czech public opinion feel their participation, from their perspective, in the war in Ukraine .

“How effective will it be? Probably. I think it will largely depend on how the Czech government and Czech media approach this issue. Because just burning a bus in a depot is not a case that would make headlines across the country for days.

“So I’m quite skeptical about the actual impact. This may have some symbolic value, but I think the only thing they may be aiming for is to try to scare the Czech public into feeling vulnerable. It’s like a classic terrorist’s handbook.

“But whether it will work, I’m quite skeptical. At least for now, based on what we’ve seen, which has been very little.”