Czech top officials close ranks in deepening diplomatic row with Russia

Jan Hamáček, Andrej Babiš

In a deepening diplomatic row with Russia, the Czech Republic is pushing Moscow to accept responsibility for what it has described as “an unprecedented act of terrorism on Czech soil” – a series of deadly blasts at an arms depot in Moravia. Following a tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats, Prague gave Moscow less than 24 hours to retract its decision or face further expulsions which would aim to bring the embassies of the two countries on an equal footing –even if it meant starting from scratch.

Photo: Pavel Golovkin,  ČTK/AP

The current stand-off between Moscow and Prague is perceived as the most serious crisis between the two countries since the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. The 2014 blasts at a munitions depot in Moravia which killed two and caused damages to the tune of one billion crowns, and which the Czech intelligence service claims to have been the work of Russian agents, is being described as “state terrorism”, with the Czech Senate calling on the government to repudiate the Czech-Russian agreement on friendship and cooperation.

In its first response to the report tying Moscow to the blasts, the Czech Republic expelled 18 Russian diplomats working undercover as agents. When Moscow retaliated by expelling twenty diplomats from the much smaller Czech Embassy in Moscow, the newly appointed Czech foreign minister, Jakub Kulhánek, issued an ultimatum:

Jakub Kulhánek | Photo: Ladislav Adámek,  Czech Ministry of Interior

"The Russian Federation has until noon on Thursday to allow the return of all expelled Czech diplomats back to Moscow. If they cannot return, I will cut the number of Russian embassy staff in Prague so that it will correspond to the current situation at the Czech embassy in Moscow.”

Since Russia has a disproportionately large embassy in Prague, counting around a hundred people after the expulsions, while Prague has just the ambassador and five diplomats left in Moscow, the reduction would be considerable and even as Prague voiced the ultimatum, it was clear that such a step would most likely mean the closure of both embassies. Supporters of the move argue that, painful as it may be, a reset in relations may be the only way to put the countries’ diplomatic representations on an equal footing –something that the country has failed to achieve in the past thirty years.

While in past years the country’s foreign policy has been divided on Russia, largely due to President Zeman’s pro-Russian orientation, now the Czech Republic appears to be speaking with one voice, with the president, prime minister, foreign minister and both houses of Parliament supporting the steps taken.

Vrbětice | Photo: Dalibor Glück,  ČTK

Support has also come from the European Union, although Prague is still waiting for concrete actions, having asked the EU and NATO to also expel Russian diplomats in a show of solidarity.

Meanwhile, Russia, which vehemently denies any involvement in the 2014 blasts, has made it clear it is in a superior position and will not respond to demands. In his annual state of the nation address President Putin warned the West not to cross the "red line" with Russia, saying that such a move would trigger “an asymmetrical, rapid and harsh" response. Although the Czech Republic was not mentioned, commentators believe the warning was also made in reference to the present stand-off.