PRAGUE – The Czech Republic has said it wants more Russian diplomats to leave the country and neighboring Slovakia has decided to expel three Russian embassy staff in solidarity, amid tensions between Prague and Moscow s ‘are stepping up about Russia’s alleged role in a deadly 2014 explosion in a Czech city. weapons depot.
New Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek said on April 22 that Russia would not be allowed to have more diplomats in Prague than the Czechs currently have in their embassy in Moscow.
He did not say how many Russian Embassy staff would be affected by the move, but in a interview with Lidovky.cz Posted late on April 21, it said “about” 60 Russian embassy staff would be expelled if Moscow ignored a deadline to allow Czech diplomats, who were recently expelled in retaliation, to return to work before noon on April 22. Moscow called the ultimatum “unacceptable”.
“We will reduce the number of diplomats at the Russian Embassy in Prague to match the number of our staff at the Embassy in Moscow,” Kulhanek said at a press briefing after the deadline expired.
“The decision entered into force today. Russia has until the end of May to recall its staff,” he added.
In response, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said she had asked the Czech Embassy “to reduce the number of its staff in Moscow taking into account the existing disparity regarding locally recruited staff “.
“The [Czech] The Ambassador has been informed that we reserve the right to take further action in case the hysterical anti-Russian campaign escalates, “Zakharova said in a statement.
After Kulhanek’s announcement, Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger announced that “three representatives of the Russian diplomatic mission must end their activities in Slovakia and must leave the country within seven days”.
Heger said Slovakia made the decision “following recent events in the Czech Republic and after thoroughly evaluating the information from our intelligence services which are cooperating closely with the intelligence services of our allies.”
The Russian Embassy in Bratislava called the decision “not at odds with the historically friendly relations between our nations”, and said the Slovak government would be informed of Russia’s response “in the near future”.
On April 19, 18 Russian diplomats identified by the Czechs as intelligence agents were expelled from their posts in Prague, prompting Moscow to retaliate by expelling 20 employees of the Czech embassy in Moscow.
The Czechs said they were surprised at the scale of the Russian movement, which they said would seriously hamper the operations of the embassy in Moscow.
“The aim is to align the situation at the Russian embassy with that of our embassy in Moscow at the moment,” Kulhanek said, explaining the number of possible expulsions.
The tit-for-tat action on the Czech allegations sparked Prague’s biggest dispute with Russia since the end of communist rule in 1989, placing the small Central European NATO member at the center of growing tensions between Moscow and Russia. the West.
The Czechs said in a statement ahead of the announcement that the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s main political decision-making body, had been briefed on the situation.
“The allies have expressed their deep concern at the destabilizing actions that Russia continues to take throughout the Euro-Atlantic area, including on the territory of the Alliance, and are fully in solidarity with the Czech Republic,” said on 22 April declaration noted.
The Kremlin rejected what it called Prague’s “baseless accusations” and said the Czech measures were “unreasonable and harmful to bilateral relations”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, commenting on Kulhanek’s interview with Lidovky.cz, said President Vladimir Putin in his annual State of the Nation address on April 21, “had spoken of the futility of making demands” against Russia.
The Czech Foreign Ministry says the number of Czech diplomats in Moscow after the expulsions is five, plus 19 other staff. The Russian embassy in Prague now has 27 diplomats and 67 other staff, according to the ministry. Both countries have additional staff in consulates in other cities.
As a result of the dispute, the Czech government has already decided to eliminate the Russian state-owned company Rosatom of a multibillion dollar tender to build a new unit at the Dukovany nuclear power plant.
Home Secretary Jan Hamacek, who was acting foreign minister until Kulhanek’s appointment, said Prague will also no longer consider purchasing Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against COVID-19.
Citing Czech intelligence, the government said that Russian military intelligence agency GRU orchestrated the explosion in the eastern town of Vrbetice in 2014 in what the Foreign Ministry called “an unacceptable violation of sovereignty. state and national security of the Czech Republic “.
The explosion on October 16 set off 50 tons of stored ammunition, killing two people. Two months later, another explosion of 13 tons of ammunition occurred at the same site.
In connection with the October explosion, Czech police said they were looking for two suspected Russian agents also identified as suspects in the 2018 poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in England.
However, the open source survey organization Bellingcat said the Russian operation that Czech authorities linked to the Vrbetice explosion involved at least six GRU officers.
Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, and his daughter Yulia almost died after being exposed to what British authorities later concluded to be Novichok, a military grade nerve agent. A British woman who accidentally came in contact with the substance has died.
British NATO allies responded to the poisoning of Skripal by imposing sanctions on Russia and expelling diplomats.