Experts expect further Russian retaliation after major expulsion of diplomats

Russian diplomats leaving Czech Republic at Prague Airport

A major crisis in relations between Prague and Moscow has reached a new plateau, with the Czech government expelling dozens of Russian Embassy staff following revelations of deadly Russian operations on Czech soil. Experts say the Kremlin is likely to retaliate further, while President Zeman’s first response is much-anticipated.

The most intense dispute between the Czech Republic and Russia in decades reached a new level on Thursday.

Following the revelation that Russian intelligence agents were behind deadly explosions in Moravia in 2014, and subsequent tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhánek said his government would impose parity of staff numbers between the Russian Embassy in Prague and the Czech Embassy in Moscow.

Given that there are only seven people left manning the latter, this means that around 60 Russians are being forced to leave their country’s extensive embassy complex in leafy Prague 6. They have until the end of May to pack their bags.

Jakub Kulhánek | Photo: Michal Kamaryt,  ČTK

Announcing the move, Minister Kulhánek told reporters that the Czech Republic was a sovereign and confident state. He said the move wasn’t aimed against the Russian nation but was a response to the activities of the country’s secret services on Czech territory.

Prior to Prague’s step it had received public support from both NATO and the European Union.

Some commentators say that the expulsions are beneficial to the Czech Republic’s allies, as the Prague embassy – which had an unusually large staff – is said to have also been a base for Russian operations in other western states.

While Mr. Kulhánek said that Moscow had accepted his government’s demands and that Czech ambassador Vítězslav Pivoňka was remaining there, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow took an extremely negative view of what he dubbed Czech hysteria.

Michal Kořan of the Global Arena Research Institute told the New York Times that the crisis was the most serious in relations between the two states since the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Russian Embassy in Prague | Photo: Petr David Josek,  ČTK/AP

Respekt investigative journalist Jaroslav Spurný wrote that tensions were likely to intensify further, with possible action on the part of the Kremlin including abrogating some contracts or shutting off gas pipelines.

Another possibility is cyber attacks, Spurný said, adding that the Czech government and security institutions would need to bolster their defences.

Analyst Jan Šír told the Czech News Agency that asymmetric and covert steps could be expected, including the possible stirring of unrest in the Czech Republic by pro-Russian forces.

While the foreign minister said on Thursday that his government had the full support of President Miloš Zeman, the head of state has not yet commented on the story that has rocked the country in recent days.

Mr. Zeman, who enjoys warm relations with Moscow, is due to discuss the matter on CNN Prima News on Sunday in an interview that will be very closely watched domestically.