Czechs expel more Russian embassy staff over bombing claims

The Czechs said they were matching Russia's expulsion of Czech diplomats after Prague said Moscow was behind a deadly 2014 blast.

Czechs expel more Russian embassy staff over bombing claims

PRAGUE — The Czech government on Thursday expelled 60 diplomats and staff from the Russian embassy in Prague, the latest move in an escalating standoff over allegations the Kremlin was behind a deadly 2014 explosion in the Czech Republic. 

The Czechs made the decision after Russia rebuffed a request to readmit 20 Czech embassy staffers it had expelled, leading Prague to argue it couldn’t run its embassy in Moscow. 

“We hoped that Russia would acknowledge the disproportionate nature of its response,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš told journalists in Prague. “We have decided to respond adequately.”

The geopolitical crisis began last Saturday, when the Czech government announced its intelligence services had determined Russian GRU military intelligence agents were responsible for a 2014 attack at an ammunition warehouse on Czech soil that left two dead.

As a result, the Czechs expelled 18 Russian diplomats, saying they had been identified as spies. Moscow retaliated by throwing the 20 Czech diplomats and embassy staff out of the country, leaving the Czech embassy in Moscow paralyzed.

Late Wednesday, new Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhánek demanded Russia allow the expelled Czechs to return. He gave the Russians until noon on Thursday to reply. 

“Our proposal went unanswered,” Babiš said. “We cannot let the evidence of a terrorist act on our territory go unanswered.” 

But he stressed the Czechs do not want escalation. “The Czech Republic is interested in fair relations with Russia,” Babiš said.

The number of Russians set for expulsion will reduce Russia’s Prague embassy staff to the size of the Czech embassy staff in Moscow, which now consists of five diplomats and 19 administrative and technical workers.

The Russian embassy in Prague currently houses 27 diplomats and 67 administrative and technical staff.

Kulhánek tried to minimize the punitive nature of the expulsions, calling it a “standard diplomatic tool that allows you to cap 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 move. The Czech ambassador to Russia, Vítězslav Pivoňka, has been summoned to the Kremlin to be informed of the next chapter in the dispute.

“Prague has embarked on the path of destroying relations, the answer will not be long in coming,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a briefing on Thursday. 

That response may be trade-related, given the Czechs this week canceled a move to purchase the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and excluded the Russian energy company Rosatom from bidding on a lucrative nuclear energy construction project.

Earlier Thursday, NATO’s political decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, expressed its “full solidarity” with the Czech Republic and criticized Russia for its “destabilizing” behavior.