Russia’s ties to West Fray continue after Czech Republic expels diplomats
PRAGUE – Russia’s frantic relations with the West took a dramatic turn for the worse on Thursday when the Czech Republic, enraged at what it said were Moscow’s fingerprints of a military-style sabotage attack on a Czech arms warehouse in 2014 ordered the expulsion of as many as 60 Russian diplomats.
The Czech decision, announced a day after Russian President Vladimir V. Putin warned that the West risked a “swift and hard” response if it interfered with his country, not only worsened a diplomatic crisis between Prague and Moscow, but also a broader confrontation between Russia and NATO, of which the Czech Republic is a member.
As Russian troops gather near the border with Ukraine and President Biden takes a firm stand against the Kremlin, Mr Putin bluntly warned the West on Wednesday not to test Russia’s resolve to defend its interests, telling it not to cross unspecified “red lines”. he said it would be defined by Russia.
The reduction in staff at the Moscow embassy in Prague does not directly jeopardize Russian security. But it will seriously harm intelligence operations, which Mr Putin, a KGB officer in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, sees vitally important.
This is the largest number of Russian diplomats expelled from a single country since President Ronald Reagan expelled 80 Cold War-era Soviet emissaries in 1986.
Michal Koran, a Prague researcher at the Global Arena Research Institute, described the growing dispute as “the most serious crisis in Czech-Russian relations” since the Soviet Union invaded what was then Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush the efforts of the leaders in Prague to create “communism with a human face”.
Russia withdrew its last troops from what is now the Czech Republic and other previously communist countries in eastern and central Europe in the early 1990s. But it has long viewed the region as an area of special interest. which owes Moscow’s gratitude and a measure of deference in exchange for the role played by the Red Army in liberating it from Nazi occupation.
Czech President Milos Zeman is widely seen as pro-Russian, but Prime Minister Andrej Babis and much of the opposition now tend to view Russia as an aggressive threat.
The Czech Foreign Ministry, in a statement on Thursday, said Russia needs to reduce the staff size of its embassy in Prague to match the level of Czech representation in Moscow, which has become downsized after Russia ordered Sunday to 20 Czech diplomats. Russia, which used its embassy in Prague as a spy center in the region, according to intelligence experts, previously had many more diplomats in the city than the Czech Republic in Moscow.
The Czech ministry did not say how many Russians would be expelled, but Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek said this week that bringing the two countries’ embassies to the same level would mean the departure of around 60 Russian diplomats. Prague, he said, had no choice but to reduce Russia’s diplomatic representation unless Moscow reconsidered its decision to expel Czech diplomats, a request the Russian government rejected as a cheeky ultimatum.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it would react “soon” to the Czech announcement. He usually responds with what he calls “mirror measures”, normally a series of reciprocal expulsions. But with so few Czech diplomats in Moscow – around five – this is now impossible, raising the possibility of a different form of retaliation.
The expulsion of Czech diplomats from Moscow on Sunday followed the expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats from Prague on Saturday. The rapid deterioration of relations was sparked by accusations that Russian military intelligence agents were responsible for the destruction of a Czech ammunition depot in 2014.
Czech authorities have investigated the mysterious explosions, which killed two Czech workers, without much success for years. But they got what they say is a big break thanks to evidence uncovered in Britain after the 2018 nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei V. Skripal in the English town of Salisbury.
Two Russians identified by Britain as the main culprits in the Salisbury attack, both members of a military intelligence sabotage and assassination squad known as Unit 29155, turned out to be the same men whom Czech investigators had long suspected to be involved in the ammunition warehouse explosions, but were unable to identify.
The two men arrived in the Czech Republic under false names several days before the blasts and went to the Vrbetice warehouse site, leaving on the day of the first blast on October 16, 2014.
Miroslav Mares, a security policy expert at Masaryk University in the Czech city of Brno, said the Czech Republic wanted “to demonstrate its self-confidence and resilience in the face of aggressive Russian behavior”. But he added that “the final effect depends heavily on the support of the Czech allies of the European Union and NATO”.