The European Union condemned Russia’s expulsion of 20 Czech diplomats from their embassy in Moscow, and the Czech Republic responded by expelling Russian diplomats of their own. This week’s events mark a deepening of the worst diplomatic row between the two countries since the end of the Cold War.
The origins of the diplomatic hostilities lie back in 2014, when two explosions rocked an ammunitions facility in the eastern Czech Republic, killing two and leading to the evacuation of several hundred. The explosion was assumed by most to have been an accident until 17 April 2021, when Czech prime minister Andrej Babis accused the GRU (Russian military intelligence) of orchestrating the attacks, linking them back to two individuals using the names Ruslan Borishov and Alexander Petrov. Those two individuals are most infamous for carrying out a 2018 nerve agent attack on English soil against an ex-Russian spy and his daughter. The attack in England was a failure, killing two innocent bystanders but failing to kill its targets. Babis insisted that the explosion was a bungled operation as well in an emotional, yet restrained, speech. “Russia was not attacking the Czech Republic. The agents attacked – we can call it a terrorist act by these agents – the goods of a Bulgarian arms trader, who was probably selling these arms to parties fighting Russia.” (Reuters) Babis’s refusal to call it a direct attack on the Czech Republic prompted outrage from opposition parties. “What Prime Minister Babis says is nonsense. An action resulting in deaths is an act of state terrorism, in contradiction with international law and the rule of bilateral relations in the 21st century,” responded Pavel Zacek, a member of the rival ODS party (Radio Free Europe). Babis responded by making a stronger-worded statement several days later.
Facing internal pressure, Babis also made the decision to evict 18 Russian diplomats from their embassy in Prague suspected of carrying out intelligence activity. Predictably, Russia responded by evicting 20 Czech diplomats, earning the EU’s condemnation. “The European Union is deeply concerned about the repeating negative pattern of dangerous malign behaviour by Russia in Europe,” the EU External Action Service declared (Reuters). Czech officials, for their part, seemed surprised. “The reaction (by Russia) is stronger than we had expected, it is more diplomats than the number of intelligence officers we expelled,” said Jan Hamacek, Czech Foreign Minister (Reuters).
Babis, still faced with accusations of being soft on Russia, decided to take further action. First, as reported by Euractiv, the Czech Republic is excluding several Russian-backed corporations from important contracts. The Russian state energy company Rosatom will no longer be competing for a nuclear contract, and the Czech Republic will not be seeking any doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
Babis then responded to Russia’s eviction of Czech diplomats by evicting even more Russian diplomats. With the Russian embassy presence in Prague totaling around 80 individuals, compared to around 20 Czech diplomats in Moscow, the Czech Republic ordered Russia to reduce its staff “to correspond to the level of Czech representation in Moscow.” (New York Times)
It’s not clear if the cycle of diplomatic expulsions will stop there. More than anything, the West is upset at Russia for its clandestine interventions on European soil. The Cold War may have ended, but full reconciliation is a long way away.
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