PRAGUE – The Czech government on Thursday expelled 60 diplomats and staff from the Russian embassy in Prague, the latest move in a growing stalemate following allegations that the Kremlin was behind a deadly explosion in 2014 in Czech Republic.
The Czechs made the move after Russia rejected a readmission request for 20 Czech embassy staff it had expelled, leading Prague to claim it could not run its embassy in Moscow. .
“We hoped that Russia would recognize the disproportionate nature of its response,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš told reporters in Prague. “We have decided to respond adequately.
The geopolitical crisis began last Saturday, when the Czech government announced that its intelligence services had determined that Russian military intelligence officers from the GRU were responsible for a 2014 attack on an ammunition warehouse on Czech soil that resulted in two deaths.
As a result, the Czechs expelled 18 Russian diplomats, claiming they had been identified as spies. Moscow retaliated by throwing all 20 Czech diplomats and embassy staff out of the country, leaving the Czech embassy in Moscow paralyzed.
On Wednesday evening, the new Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhánek asked Russia to authorize the return of the expelled Czechs. He gave the Russians until noon Thursday to respond.
“Our proposal went unanswered,” Babiš said. “We cannot leave the evidence of a terrorist act in our territory unanswered.”
But he stressed that the Czechs do not want an escalation. “The Czech Republic is interested in fair relations with Russia,” Babiš said.
The number of Russians to be deported will reduce the staff of the Russian Embassy in Prague to the size of the staff of the Czech Embassy in Moscow, which is now consists five diplomats and 19 administrative and technical officers.
The Russian Embassy in Prague currently houses 27 diplomats and 67 administrative and technical staff.
Kulhánek has tried to downplay the punitive nature of the expulsions, calling them “a standard diplomatic tool that allows you to limit the number of diplomats at the embassy.”
Russia has until the end of May to withdraw its people, the Czech foreign minister said.
The Kremlin will likely respond with another punitive measure. Czech Ambassador to Russia Vítězslav Pivoňka has been summoned to the Kremlin to be briefed on the next chapter of the dispute.
“Prague has embarked on the path of destroying relations, the response will not delay”, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova noted during a briefing Thursday.
This response may be trade-related, given that the Czechs this week reversed a decision to buy Russian vaccine Sputnik V and excluded Russian energy company Rosatom from a bid on a lucrative nuclear power construction project.
Earlier Thursday, NATO’s political decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, expressed “full solidarity” with the Czech Republic and criticized Russia for its “destabilizing” behavior.