The Czech Republic has expelled a further 63 Russian diplomats and staff from the Russian Embassy in Prague as the crisis in bilateral relations worsened.
Moscow had refused to accept the Czech ultimatum to let all 20 expelled Czech diplomats return to their embassy in Moscow. New Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek confirmed that Czechia will respond by limiting the number of Russian diplomats in Prague to the number of Czech diplomats that are allowed to stay at the Czech Embassy in Moscow.
According to Kulhanek, the decision entered into effect on April 22. Russian has until the end of May to withdraw its staff from the Czech capital, with the total number of Russian diplomats being expelled now reaching around 38.
According to the Czech Foreign Ministry, the Czech Embassy in Moscow now has just seven diplomats and 25 other staff, while the huge Russian Embassy in Prague – long seen as the base for Russian spying in the region – currently has 27 diplomats and 67 other staff. The new round of expulsions would mean the Russian Embassy will go from having an original 45 diplomats to seven.
The move comes following tit-for-tat rounds of expulsions when the Czech government revealed last weekend that the Kremlin is suspected of having beeen involved in two arms warehouse explosions that resulted in two deaths back in 2014.
Both the EU and Nato have expressed support for Czechia. “The European Union strongly condemns the illegal activities on the territory of the Czech Republic … The EU takes extremely seriously the conclusions by the Czech authorities, based on extensive investigations, that officers of the Russian military intelligence GRU perpetrated these actions,” the declaration of the EU High Representative Josef Borrell read.
“The European Union is deeply concerned by any gross violation of international law and sovereignty of the Czech Republic, as well as any such action targeting any other EU member state. Russia must desist from activities that threaten security and stability in Europe and run counter to Russia’s international obligations,” the EU said, adding that it supports the Czech actions taken so far and is ready to support its further efforts to bring those responsible to justice.
“The EU condemns the disproportionate reaction and subsequent threats of Russian Federation towards the Czech Republic. Disruptive actions of Russian intelligence services against the interests and security of the EU and its member states will continue to be met with the staunchest resolve, including at the level of the European Union, as appropriate,” it noted.
Also, Nato expressed its solidarity with Czechia and scolded Russia for its destabilising actions across the region. “In response to its determination of Russia’s responsibility for these actions, the Czech Republic has expelled 18 Russian officials who are members of Russia’s intelligence services, and is considering further substantial measures,” its statement read.
“Allies express deep concern over the destabilising actions Russia continues to carry out across the Euro-Atlantic area, including on alliance territory, and stand in full solidarity with the Czech Republic,” Nato said.
“The United States and our partners must defend our national interests and impose costs for Russian government actions that cross boundaries respected by responsible nations," a US State Department spokesperson told EUobserver.
According to the spokesperson, the attack was "disturbing" and the allies needed to send "a firm message that Russia's dangerous actions will be met with an appropriate response”.
"After the attack in Salisbury the alliance showed solidarity in expelling hundreds of Russian diplomats. The Czechs have an equal claim to such solidarity," said former senior Nato official Jamie Shea, quoted by EUobserver, adding that it is important the Kremlin knows that it has to pay a price for these forms of hybrid warfare.
Czechia's closest neighbour, Slovakia, has already taken such a step and decided to expel three Russian diplomats from the country, the Russian Embassy in Bratislava confirmed on Facebook.
"Slovakia confirms its interest in building relations based on mutual respect with the Russian Federation. At the same time, we expect that representatives of the Russian diplomatic mission will also contribute to this and that they'll respect the principles of conduct based on the relevant international conventions," said Slovak PM Eduard Heger together with Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok and Defence Minister Jaroslav Nad.
"Accusations of any illegal activities, even more so of activities aimed against the Slovak Republic, levelled against staff of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Slovak Republic are absolutely baseless," the Russian embassy stated, adding that Russia will respond "appropriately" to this move.
According to the extra-parliamentary party Voice-SD of former Slovak PM Peter Pellegrini, he rejects the government's move and claims it should have consulted parliament about it.
Also the former government party of Robert Fico Smer-SD rejected the move, stating that the EU hasn't adopted any joint attitude on the Czech-Russian fight. Slovakia is the only country to engage in expelling Russian diplomats over the explosion in Czechia.
"Smer-SD rejects the manners presented today by the one-sided uncritical prime minister, foreign minister and defence minister. They today displayed their long-standing anti-Russian sentiments in full," said Parliamentary Vice-chairman Juraj Blanar (Smer-SD).
The crisis in Czech-Russian relations comes against the backdrop of rising East-West tensions over Russia's military build-up on the Ukrainian border, as well as concerns over the health of Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny in prison, as well as new US sanctions for Russia's alleged dirty tricks in the West.
According to Shea, Putin seems to be looking for a provocation or a casus belli to “justify” a new aggression against Ukraine, putting the blame on Nato. "Given the current military tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border, the Vrbetice [arms depot] response must be measured and proportionate. Clear messaging is important here ... the allies need to be firm, but to de-escalate the situation," he added.
Russia denies any involvement in explosions and has made it very clear that it believes it is in a superior position here and thus will not make Czechia push it for any demands. In his annual State of the Nation address, Russian President warned the West not to cross the "red line" with Russia, which could trigger “an asymmetrical, fast and harsh" response, adding that Russia will be the one who decides where this red line runs in every concrete case.
“The organisers of any provocations threatening the fundamental interests of our security will regret their deeds more than they have regretted anything in a long time,” Putin said, as quoted by the New York Times.