Czechs order Russia to withdraw most embassy staff amid escalating spy case

  • Moscow and Prague in the largest row of the post-communist era
  • Czech authorities order Russia to cut 63 additional posts
  • Moscow calls for commitment to retaliate
  • The deadly 2014 explosion at a Czech ammunition depot
  • Russian suspects also charged with poisoning in 2018

MOSCOW, April 22 (Reuters) – The Czech Republic on Thursday ordered Russia to withdraw most of its remaining diplomatic staff from Prague in an escalation of the worst dispute between the two countries in decades.

The spy feud erupted on Saturday when Prague expelled 18 Russian personnel, whom it identified as intelligence agents.

He said two Russian spies accused of nerve agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 were also behind an explosion at a Czech ammunition depot in 2014 that killed two.

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Russia has denied the Czech accusations and on Sunday ordered the release of 20 Czech workers in retaliation.

Thursday’s decision, announced by Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek, requires Russia to have the same number of emissaries as the Czech Republic in Moscow. This means Russia will have to withdraw 63 diplomats and other staff from Prague, although Prague has given it until the end of May to do so.

With the initial step, this will drastically reduce what was by far the largest foreign mission in Prague and much larger than the Czech representation in Moscow.

“We are going to cap the number of diplomats at the Russian embassy in Prague at the current level of our embassy in Moscow,” Kulhanek said.

“I don’t want to escalate unnecessarily … but the Czech Republic is a safe country and will act as such. It is not directed against the Russians or the Russian nation, but a reaction to the activities of the Russian secret service. in our territory. “

In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry demanded a downsizing of the embassy, ​​hinting at the disparity in the number of local staff.

“The (Czech) Ambassador has been informed that we reserve the right to take further action in case the hysterical anti-Russian campaign escalates,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. in a press release.

At a time of great tension in Russia’s relations with the West, the dispute prompted NATO and the European Union to lend their support to the Czech Republic, a member of the two blocs.

“The allies express 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 the 30 allies NATO in a press release.

Slovakia on Thursday expelled three Russian envoys in solidarity with the Czech Republic. The Russian response to this step was not immediately clear.

Moscow last week also expelled diplomats from Bulgaria, Poland and the United States in retaliation for the expulsions of its own staff.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow had a negative view of “hysteria” in Prague.

In his State of the Nation address on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin warned foreign powers not to cross Russia’s “red lines”, saying Moscow would make them regret it.

THE CZECH SAY THEIR EMBASSY PARALYZED

The Czechs claim that the loss of the 20 staff members effectively crippled the functioning of their embassy in Moscow.

The size of the Russian Embassy in Prague is an overhang from the pre-1989 Communist era and was about double the United States Embassy until this week.

Kulhanek told Czech television that Russia told the Czech envoy on Thursday that there would now be “strict parity”.

He said this meant that each country would have 7 diplomats and 25 more in the respective embassies, which matches the current level of Czech personnel in Moscow.

He said the Czech side was considering how to proceed after the Russian request to reduce the number of local employees.

The ministry said on Wednesday that Russia had 27 diplomats and 67 other staff in Prague after previous expulsions.

The Czech Counterintelligence Service has repeatedly said the mission serves as a base for intelligence work and its size makes it difficult to curtail such activities.

The two suspects named by Prague in connection with the 2014 munitions dump explosion, known by the pseudonyms Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, are believed to be part of the elite unit 29155 of the Russian military intelligence service GRU .

Britain has indicted them in absentia with attempted murder after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the nerve agent Novichok in the English town of Salisbury in 2018.

The Skripals survived, but a member of the public has died. The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the incident.

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Reporting by Maxim Rodionov; written by Tom Balmforth; edited by Mark Trevelyan

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