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GRU Unit 29155, Russia’s assassination and sabotage squad, blew up ammunition warehouses in Czechia. It had help from Elena and Nikolai Šapošnikov, a family of deep-cover spies working as arms dealers.

Content
  • The Illegals

  • All in the Family

  • The GRU’s Hellenic Retreat

  • The Saboteurs

  • The Telltale Passport

RU

Carried out with The Insider's Greek investigative partner Inside Story.

Villa Elena, a three-storey hotel in Frama, Halkidiki, northern Greece, boasts a large outdoor swimming pool, gazebo, private garden, not to mention sprawling grounds. Even if the interior – all loud greens and purples with gold-rimmed cabinets – looks hopelessly post-Soviet, the amenities include foam pillows, hairdryers and bathrobes. One could do worse for $155 a night. But Nikolay and Elena Šapošnikov, for whom the pillared pile on the Aegean is named, are no ordinary hoteliers. They are Russian “illegals,” or spies operating outside of diplomatic cover, who spent decades living under false pretenses as naturalized citizens of Czechia.

And Villa Elena is no ordinary hotel.

For the last fifteen years, it has served as the Greek safehouse for members of GRU Unit 29155, Vladimir Putin’s most grimly accomplished assassination and sabotage squad, the one responsible for poisoning enemies of the Kremlin and blowing up materiel stored in Czechia and Bulgaria, both NATO countries, before it could be sent to the Georgian and Ukrainian armies as well as Western-backed Syrian rebels. All of these end users were variously squaring off against Russian forces or threatening to overthrow an important Russian client. In fact, the Šapošnikovs abetted those bombings, which The Insider first exposed as the work of Unit 29155.

Today, the Czech Intelligence Center for Counter-Terrorism and Organized Crime has released the findings of a years-long investigation into Unit 29155’s role in destroying two Czech government-run weapons and ammunition depots in 2014 in Vrbětice, a small town in the south Moravian region of Czechia. These attacks, which resulted in Prague’s expulsion of 18 Russian intelligence officers operating in the country under diplomatic cover, were conducted with explosive devices emplaced by Unit 29155’s most recognizable operatives: Alexander Mishkin, 44, and Anatoly Chepiga, 45. Both would gain international notoriety for trying to murder Sergei Skripal, a GRU officer turned British double agent, along with his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, England in 2018, with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok.

The Šapošnikovs not only arranged for Mishkin and Chepiga to gain access to two different warehouses in Vrbětice, but they also communicated directly with Gen. Andrei Averyanov, 58, the founding commander of Unit 29155, who tasked them with facilitating violence against their adoptive nation.

The GRU, like the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, has long maintained its own illegals program. But the Šapošnikovs are the first known case of to ever be affiliated with Unit 29155, whose remit is strictly kinetic. In March, The Insider, along with its investigative partners 60 Minutes and Der Spiegel, uncovered evidence implicating Unit 29155 in directed energy attacks thought to be the cause of Havana Syndrome, the name given to a collection of debilitating medical ailments afflicting American intelligence officers and diplomats worldwide.

While both Šapošnikov spouses engaged in espionage for Russia assisted GRU’s sabotage operations, the wife, Šapošnikova, 62, appears to have been directly integrated with Unit 29155, as evidenced both by findings by the Czech investigators and by The Insider’s independent discovery of documentary evidence. As such, Czech investigators have concluded, she likely directed and supervised her husband’s – and possibly their son’s – activities in support of Russian state interests. The family’s clandestine duties ranged from intelligence-gathering to logistical facilitation, providing safe havens, recruitment efforts, and even aiding in securing physical access for GRU operatives conducting sabotage missions.

The Insider has also discovered that Šapošnikova even possessed a secret Russian service passport from a special series reserved for spies from Unit 29155. She even received the Hero of Russian Federation, the highest state honor awarded to those who perform “service to the Russian state and nation, usually connected with a heroic feat of valor.” Putin himself bestowed the title on Šapošnikova in a secret ceremony in Moscow following Unit 29155’s sabotage operations in Czechia and Bulgaria.

In 2023, Czech authorities, after conducting an independent criminal investigation into the Šapošnikovs’ role in the 2014 bombings in Vrbětice, declared the couple “persons of interest” and requested their questioning by Greek authorities. Nikolay and Elena Šapošnikov submitted a statement to Greek authorities alleging they are persecuted by the Czech Republic and are “scapegoats in the name of unknown interests.” Nikolay Šapošnikov died from a heart attack in Greece in February 2024 at the age of 62.

The Illegals

Nikolay Šapošnikov was born in 1961 in Severodvinsk in the far north-west of Russia into a family of military engineers. In 1983 he graduated from the engineering department of the Baku Military Command School and was appointed commander of a motorized rifle company in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital. Records show that Šapošnikov’s unit was deployed to Afghanistan from 1983-1986, during the Soviet occupation of the country. In 1985 he divorced his first wife, Natalia, and immediately married Elena Šapošniková (née Lisetskaya), a Kyiv-born engineer and the daughter of a lieutenant-colonel who taught at the Kyiv military command institute. At the time of their marriage she was working at the Baku-based Physics Institute. Elena had a son, Pavel, from a previous marriage. She and Nikolay bore a daughter, Valeria, who was born in 1986.

Nikolay and Elena Šapošnikov’s Soviet passport photos
Nikolay and Elena Šapošnikov’s Soviet passport photos

The following year, the Soviet Union began withdrawing from Afghanistan. Šapošnikov was redeployed to Czechoslovakia, then a member of the Warsaw Pact, the U.S.S.R.’s equivalent to NATO, where he served as motorized rifle company commander in Jelsava in what is today’s Slovakia. His military career ended, at least on paper, three years later as Czechoslovakia, along with the rest of the Eastern Bloc countries, shook off the yoke of Communist rule. In February 1989, Šapošnikov was expelled from the Communist Party and censured by his commanders over “repeated embezzlement of gasoline and batteries from the army.” This blot on his resume, whether real or contrived, would come in handy a little while later.

In 1990, Nikolay was retired from military service, formally on medical grounds (he suffered from a spinal injury), and assigned as a reservist to Kyiv, Ukraine, where his wife’s family then lived.

But as Soviet troops departed that country, too, less than a year later, Šapošnikov returned to Czechoslovakia, where he reported to a police precinct in the town of Zvolen. He sought political asylum, citing his expulsion from the Soviet Communist Party as evidence of his dissidence. In August 1991, after several consecutive stays in refugee camps, Nikolay received the status of a political refugee. A few months later, he was rejoined by his wife Elena and their two young children. They similarly received Czechoslovakian political asylum in 1992.

After the Czech Republic split peacefully from Slovakia into an independent country, the family of self-professed Soviet dissidents promptly applied for citizenship. However, their applications were riddled with omissions, misrepresentations, and forgeries. Šapošnikov falsely claimed he was born to a family of clerks, not military officers. He also hid the fact that he was a soldier, too, that he had served as a commander in Afghanistan, and that he had a daughter from a previous marriage. Finally, he presented a forged birth certificate for Pavel, Elena’s son from her first marriage, making it appear as if Nikolay were Pavel’s biological father.

Elena Šapošnikova’s misrepresentations in pursuit of Czech citizenship were more egregious. She lied that she had surrendered her Ukrainian passport upon receiving Czechoslovakian asylum in 1992, when in fact she repeatedly used the Ukrainian document to travel to both Russia and Ukraine – the very countries where she was purportedly at risk of political persecution.

For all that, the Šapošnikovs still became Czech citizens, likely through bribery or co-opting crooked bureaucrats. Nikolay received his passport in 1999, while Elena, after “at least six” attempts, obtained hers in 2004 following the involvement of Stanislav Gross, Prague’s notoriously corrupt interior minister at the time. An immigration officer working on Elena’s case even attached a hand-written note to her file: “A red line running through this entire application has been the various people constantly trying to intervene to achieve a positive outcome.”

All in the Family

Even after the collapse of Communism, the white and black market trade in Soviet-era weapons was a growth industry, owing to the fact that so many nations around the globe – including new-minted members of the EU and NATO – had armies that still relied on kit manufactured in the USSR or its satellites. In the early 2000’s, Nikolai pitched his military expertise to Petr Bernatik, a former secret agent of the ŠtB, the Czechoslovakian state security service. An engineer by training, Bernatik had served as an undercover informant in the ŠtB’s counterintelligence department, which kept close ties with both the Soviet KGB and the occupying Red Army. After the Czech Republic became a free-market economy, Bernatik launched a number of arms trading companies and hired his former commanding officers from the Czech secret police to work for him. He apparently felt no compunction in also enlisting a former Russian officer.

The largest of Bernatik’s arms dealing businesses was Imex Group. Šapošnikov’s unofficial role in the company was that of a business development executive: he scouted sales opportunities and provided consultancy and support to Imex’s international customers. As time went by, Šapošnikov brought more and more of his own family into Imex. By 2012, both Valeria and Pavel, his daughter and stepson, were employed by the company.

Pavel Šapošnikov’s application to the Czech Pirate Party forum
Pavel Šapošnikov’s application to the Czech Pirate Party forum

A graduate of the University of Prague, Pavel joined Czechia’s libertarian center-left Pirate Party in 2014, describing himself in an online forum as a former “employee in the field of international trade” with “a different opinion from my superiors.” Pavel admired the grassroots movement’s doctrine of openness and transparency. “I don’t know how I can be helpful at the moment,” he posted to the party’s online forum as part of his application, “but maybe something will come up.” Pavel’s name was later added in a list of suspicious new applicants who were using avatars instead of photos in their online communication. Travel data shows Pavel flew to Simferopol, the provincial capital of Russian-occupied Crimea, in 2019.

Elena, meanwhile, ran her own business: a company that purported to import pig iron from former Soviet republics. But as Czech police would later discover, Elena was also deeply involved with her husband’s enterprise and intimately aware of Imex’s operations. In many ways, she seemed to be supervising and directing Nikolay’s activities in direct coordination with Andrey Averyanov, the head of Unit 29155. She communicated with Gen. Andrey Averyanov via email; his Gmail address, registered from a Russian IP address, is [email protected]. (“Vitazi” in Russian means “knights.”)

Elena also provided a veneer of plausibility for the Šapošnikovs’ lavish lifestyle. Despite Šapošnikov’s modest income from Imex (around $650 per month), the family bought real estate in Czechia and Greece at a value far in excess of what their collective income could account for. As Czech investigators note, “in some cases their official income could not cover even their phone bill for the month.” Furthermore, Elena owned a company registered in the Marshall Islands and controlled two bank accounts in Switzerland. Those offshore accounts, plus unexplained cash infusions to their Czech banks and a series of in-cash payments, appeared to have been the real source of income.

Then there was their Greek villa.

The GRU’s Hellenic Retreat

In 2009 the Šapošnikovs purchased a sprawling villa on the picturesque Aegean peninsula of Halkidiki, Greece. The price, as recorded in the notarial deed of purchase obtained by The Insider, was 275,292 euros, or $300,000 at the time. Elena would later tell investigators that she had funded the investment “with money from my parents” – a tall order for the septuagenarian couple living in Kyiv on pensions of under $300 per month.

  • The Šapošnikovs’ villa in Frama, Halkidiki (Greece); also a Unit 29155 safehouse in Europe

The Šapošnikovs moved into Villa Elena in 2010 and set off to run it as a hotel. They only visited Czechia occasionally from then on.

While sites such as Booking.com and Tripadvisor contain links to the property, where it appears at least a few holidaymakers stayed and even left reviews, The Insider has not been able to find any publicly bookable dates since it started this investigation in 2021.

Unpublicized tourists include members of Unit 29155 who began traveling to the nearby port city of Thessaloniki – only an hour’s drive south-east from the villa – as soon as the Šapošnikovs took ownership.

Averyanov traveled to Thessaloniki under his cover identity of “Andrey Overyanov” and stayed in the vicinity of Villa Elena for a week between July 15 and July 21, 2013, metadata from his burner phone obtained by The Insider shows. Averyanov returned to Thessaloniki the following year, on the return leg of a trip he made to Amsterdam on August 25, 2014. At least four other members of Unit 29155 took trips to Thessaloniki and likely also stayed at Villa Elena in the period from 2012 to 2018. Some of these visits coincided with missions the operatives had in the region.

For example, Unit 29155 member Alexey Kapinos, whom Šapošnikov described to Czech investigators as “a family friend,” flew to Thessaloniki on a diplomatic passport on April 25, 2014. Just a day earlier, Kapinos’ GRU associates, all traveling under fake identities, arrived in Bulgaria. According to a joint investigation by The Insider and Bellingcat, which has since been corroborated by indictments from Bulgarian prosecutors, Unit 29155 poisoned the Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev with an unidentified organophosphate substance at the time of this trip.

Emilian Gebrev, the head of the company EMCO, told The Insider that he had been befriended by the Šapošnikovs in 2012. The illegals evidently sought out his friendship despite the scarcity of common business projects between them. Gebrev said he remembered that Elena was the dominant partner in the marriage, always steering the conversation in her preferred direction.

The Šapošnikovs — Nikolay and Elena
The Šapošnikovs — Nikolay and Elena

As previously disclosed by The Insider, at the time of his poisoning Gebrev was seen as a consequential supplier of ammunition to the Ukraine Army, then reconstituting itself following Russia’s seizure of Crimea and orchestration of a plausibly deniable “separatist” insurgency in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Gebrev says that shortly before being poisoned he stopped supplying Ukraine with ammunition in voluntary compliance with the Minsk Accords, two serially violated ceasefire agreements signed in September 2014 and February 2015 by Ukraine, Russia, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Two sources active in weapons procurement in Ukraine at the time told The Insider that immediately after Gebrev’s poisoning, Šapošnikov offered Ukrainian government buyers “a reliable replacement” for the Bulgarian arms merchant. In the event, Kyiv never purchased from the supplier suggested by Šapošnikov due to the deficient quality of his inventory.

The Saboteurs

Czech police investigators now disclose that Elena, the senior illegal in the husband-and-wife team, communicated with Averyanov via his Gmail account, offering critical intelligence about pending weapons sale contracts involving Imex Group. The Šapošnikovs’ cultivation of Gebrev paid off. Their company began trading frequently with EMCO, which produced and repaired everything from Soviet-era artillery to armored vehicles across a host of plants in Bulgaria, often for export to Georgia and Ukraine. EMCO also refurbished dated Czech-made ammunition, including rounds subsequently purchased by Imex Group, corporate records show.

Averyanov’s interest in Imex Group’s partners across NATO was obvious. Any sales deemed contrary to Russia’s interest would be ideal targets for Unit 29155, which could target the weapons and ammunition, if not try to kill the brokers responsible for selling them to enemy states or non-state actors, such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a collection of Western-backed rebel groups opposed to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Czechs allege that Imex Group was involved in deals with European counterparts that resold mines, assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and anti-tank missiles. One Slovakian company, Kelson, sought to acquire these wares through intermediary companies, all with the intent to resell them to the Saudi Ministry of Defense. The FSA, the Czechs conclude, were “probably” the ultimate recipient. (Saudi Arabia did indeed purchase weapons in Croatia that wound up in FSA custody, as the New York Times reported in 2013.)

As a senior GRU commander overseeing a strictly kinetic unit within the service, Averyanov would have been ordered by Moscow to interdict covert weapons shipments intended for Syria’s mainstream insurgents, who, prior to Russia’s direct military intervention in the country’s civil war in 2015, were perilously close to unhorsing one of Russia’s most valued client regimes in the Middle East. The CIA and Turkish intelligence backed dozens of FSA formations battling Assad’s army and Iranian-backed militias until the rise of hardline jihadists, particularly as the Islamic State, transformed NATO’s approach to Syria as a counterterrorist mission.

On July 24, 2013, Averyanov wrote to Šapošniková that “very, very much we need a complete list…” of sought-after platforms. She later forwarded the GRU general attached PDF files titled “Aircraft_FSA.pdf,” “Ammunition_FSA.pdf,” and “Weapons_FSA.pdf,” all of which Pavel Šapošnikov sent her on August 3.

The GRU was therefore “informed about the planned trade from beginning to end,” the Czech investigators conclude. “These goods were stored exclusively in Vrbětice in warehouses No. 16 and 12. As a result of the subsequent explosions, the goods were not delivered and were completely destroyed.”

The Šapošnikovs — likely aided by Petr Bernatik Jr., the executive director of Imex and the son of its founder — provided physical access to these warehouses. They may have also conspired to help the GRU commit an act of piracy or maritime terrorism.

The first case of Unit 29155 sabotaging a military consignment may have involved disappearing a ship carrying pontoon bridge parts and Ukrainian-made KrAZ trucks destined for Vietnam. The “INA,” a Ukrainian ship, disappeared in 2013 sometime after passing through the Suez Canal and switching off its transponder. According to Czech investigators, Elena and Averyanov “communicated about this order,” which set sail from the Bulgarian port of Varna on December 17, 2013, where the Šapošnikovs had arrived personally to oversee the departure. People familiar with the transaction told The Insider that this shipment would have interfered with a direct sale to Vietnam by a Russian arms export company, and the ship’s disappearance may have been aimed at sabotaging this competing supplier.

Almost a year later, on October 16, 2014, the first warehouse in Vrbětice went up in flames.

Czech investigators are clear that this was the handiwork of Unit 29155. On September 26 of that year, Averyanov, using his Gmail account, messaged Šapošnikova: “Hello Elena, I am sending a request to visit the warehouses…”

The subsequent digital exchange between the GRU handler and his Czech agent consisted of pleasantries and business. Šapošnikova wished “Andrusha,” the diminutive for Andrey, a happy birthday on September 29, and the two made plans to meet in person in Portugal the following month. Evidence shows Averyanov and Nikolay, along with Elena and their daughter Valeria, did in fact meet in Lisbon on October 3.

A week later, the Šapošnikovs were back in Czechia, where Nikolai met with Petr Bernatík Jr., the son of the Imex Group’s founder and “a key player in its operations,” according to investigators. Averyanov then sent a blank email to Bernatik Jr.’s corporate Imex address. The message contained an attachment of Photoshopped passport scans for two men: “Ruslan Khalimovich Tabarov” and “Nicolai Popa.” These were fake identities of Mishkin and Chepiga, the Unit 29155 operatives who would go on to poison the Skripals in Salisbury.

Photoshopped passport pages for Unit 29155 operatives Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, sent by their commander Gen. Andrey Averyanov, so they could gain access to the Vrbětice storage facility
Photoshopped passport pages for Unit 29155 operatives Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, sent by their commander Gen. Andrey Averyanov, so they could gain access to the Vrbětice storage facility

At 8:31 a.m. on Saturday, October 11, Bernatik Jr. forwarded the email to his assistant. Bernatik Jr. had no other correspondence on that day, nor did he conduct any other duties for Imex Group. He did, however, call Šapošnikov before and after forwarding Averyanov’s message. A little over an hour after forwarding Averyanov’s email, just before 10 o’clock in the morning, Mishkin and Chepiga cleared passport control in Prague. Later that day, they checked into the Florentina Boat Hotel in the Czech capital, where they mingled and flirted with a young Ukrainian woman, using the same absurd cover story they’d use for the Skripal assassination: they were traveling sports nutritionists.

On Monday, October 13, Bernatik Jr.’s assistant instructed the warehouse authority in Vrbětice to allow entry for “Ruslan Tabarov” and “Nicolai Popa” anytime between October 14th and 17th.

The Šapošnikovs were at that exact moment meeting with Averyanov and his deputy Alexey Kapinos at the Gino Paradize Hotel in Besenova, a village in Slovakia. En route to the hotel, the Šapošnikovs would have passed through the city of Žilina, where another Unit 29155 operative, Nikolay Ezhov, was staying at the Polom Hotel, having arrived from Moscow together with Averyanov.

The complicity of Alexey Kapinos and Nikolay Ezhov, along with several other members of Unit 29155, to the targeted explosions in Vrbetice, were previously disclosed by a joint investigation by The Insider and Bellingcat. The new details provided by Czech investigators corroborate and supplement The Insider's findings which were based on analysis of travel data, shown in the map below.

Timeline and map of arrivals of members of 29155 in the area of the Vrbetice explosions in October 2014
Timeline and map of arrivals of members of 29155 in the area of the Vrbetice explosions in October 2014

Warehouse 16 blew up at 9:30 a.m. on October 16, turning the entire building into a giant inferno with secondary explosions caused by igniting gunpowder and incendiaries. The resulting blast was so severe that an hour later, the Institute of Geophysics at the Czech Academy of Science registered a large earthquake. Two Imex Group employees, Luděk Petřík and Vratislav Havránek, were killed instantly while conducting an inspection of aircraft engines and 152-millimeter artillery shells belonging to EMCO. Both Petřík and Havránek were ripped apart instantly; shrapnel from a Soviet/Russian PG-15 anti-tank grenade, a type of munition was later recovered from the severed remains of one of them.

A month and a half later, on December 3, artillery, mortars, and assault rifles – much of it owned by EMCO – began exploding in Warehouse 12 in the same Vrbětice facility.

The Telltale Passport

The Šapošnikovs were initially confronted by Czech investigators in 2021 with the array of incriminating overlaps between their actions, meetings, and communications with Unit 29155 and the explosions not only in Czechia, but also at arms warehouses in Bulgaria. As The Insider was the first to report, Unit 29155’s first kinetic operation on EU and NATO soil took place in the Bulgarian village of Lovnidol in 2011, after other operatives from the unit, using homemade detonators, blew up yet another EMCO consignment of artillery shells recently transported from the Vrbětice facility. Bulgaria was subsequently the target of 6 additional bombings or acts of arson, all perpetrated by Unit 29155.

The Šapošnikovs were subjected to several interrogations, conducted via the proxies of the Greek and Bulgarian authorities (the couple refused to travel to Czechia to submit themselves to questioning there). They repeatedly changed their testimony to try to account for new, independently sourced evidence with which they were confronted. Their main argument in favor of their innocence was that all their links to Unit 29155 were “personal” or driven by the legitimate business interests of Imex Group. The Šapošnikovs claimed they did not know Andrey Averyanov or Alexey Kapinos were members of an internationally wanted state terrorist organization. They further insisted that they did not knowingly assist Unit 29155 with any of their sabotage operations. The couple has accused Czech authorities of political persecution owing to their Russian heritage. Moreover, there is no predicate offense, as the 2014 explosions in Vrbětice, they maintain, were the result of industrial accidents.

The Šapošnikovs’ defense is unlikely to withstand the weight of forensic evidence compiled by Czech investigators — or the new discovery made by The Insider as this story was going to press.

Travel and border crossing data, recently made available thanks to an avalanche of terabytes leaked from Russian government databases, showed that Elena Šapošnikova is in possession of a secret Russian passport. Critically, her nine-digit passport number is part of a numerical range reserved exclusively for members of Unit 29155, differing from those of her colleagues only by its last two digits. Šapošnikova’s is 646518955.

Passport numbers reserved exclusively for members of GRU Unit 29155
Passport numbers reserved exclusively for members of GRU Unit 29155

Šapošnikova used this passport to travel between Greece and Russia on at least two occasions, once in December 2015 and the second time in December 2017. In both cases, she used sophisticated tradecraft that sought to leave no trace in databases accessible to European authorities. For instance, she booked her trips and bought her plane tickets using her Czech passport, registering only that nationality with the Greek airline. But upon crossing the Russian border, Šapošnikova used her secret Russian passport, thus bypassing the need to obtain a Russian visa issued to her as a Czech citizen and eliding the digital footprint associated with the relevant application.

Notably, Šapošnikova’s first trip to Moscow under her GRU service passport lasted only two days. She traveled from Thessaloniki to Moscow on December 3, 2015 and left on December 5. The trip was short but sweet. It was on this visit that Vladimir Putin bestowed her Hero of the Russian Federation title, a decoration the naturalized Czech arms dealer and hotelier now shares with many of her colleagues in Russia’s elite band of murderers and saboteurs.

With additional reporting by Kato Kopaleishvili.

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