“We do not want to escalate tensions further” – EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell dismisses Czech call to expel further Russian diplomats

Josep Borrell, photo: European Parliament / CC BY 2.0

The European Union does not want to further escalate tensions with Moscow, the head of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Josep Borrell, said on Monday. The statement came after a meeting of EU foreign ministers ahead of which Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Jakub Kulhánek called on EU member states to expel Russian diplomats in retaliation for the involvement of Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) in the 2014 Vrbětice explosions.

Josep Borrell told journalists after the meeting of foreign ministers on Monday that the issue had been “deeply” discussed at last weekend’s informal European Council summit. However, a continuation of the escalation through the expulsion of diplomats is not on the agenda for the time being, Mr Borrell said.

“We reassured Czechia of the strong support of the European Union. But, at the same time, I think everybody agrees on the need of not continuing the escalation. We need to look for strong support, but at the same time try not to increase the tensions. Let us wait what the leaders discuss on May 25. For the time being it is not on the agenda to continue the escalation through the expulsions of diplomats.”

The call for a united EU retaliation came from the Czech side after new information from the Czech civilian counterintelligence service BIS was presented in April. This showed that two GRU intelligence officers were involved in the explosion at the Vrbětice munitions depot in 2014, which killed two Czechs and caused close to a billion crowns in damages.

Russia and the Czech Republic have already traded blows after the new evidence came to light, reciprocally expelling large numbers of diplomats.

The European Council subsequently showed solidarity with the Czechs.  Strongly condemning Russia’s involvement, it stated that it “stands ready to support further efforts to bring those responsible to justice” and that disruptive actions by Russian intelligence services “will continue to be met with the staunchest resolve”.

Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhánek called on other EU member states to show solidarity and expel at least one Russian diplomat each. Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Romania responded to the call, but not so the country’s Western allies.

Pavel Havlíček | Photo: Archive of Pavel Havlíček

Pavel Havlíček, a political analyst from the think-tank Association for International Affairs in Prague likened the decision to the EU shooting itself in the foot.

"I think that this is bad news for the Czech governmental team and bad news for the EU in general, because I think that, while it is a cold shower for Czech diplomacy, the EU is also shooting itself in the foot by its efforts not to escalate relations with Russia any further.

“We know that Russia is willing to escalate. I think it became quite clear when they added the president of the European Parliament as well as Czech Commissioner Vera Jourova onto their sanctions list [last week]. They continue on this very aggressive and assertive node of anti-EU actions and rhetoric.

“I think that by offering only very little in terms of deterrence, Europe is showing weakness as well as a willingness to accept these punches from the Russian side. This is bad news for Czechia as well as Bulgaria, which is in a very similar situation, and for the EU."

The move is all the more puzzling, Mr Havlíček says, after the seeming humiliation of EEAS High Representative Josep Borrell by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow earlier this year, when Russia accused EU leaders of lying about the poisoning of the jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny, calling the EU an “unreliable partner” and going on to expel diplomats from several EU member states.

"I think that perhaps many of us in the EU expected its diplomacy to step up its actions, to be more assertive. There were some indications of that earlier this year of that when, for example Josep Borrell mentioned that the EU will be reciprocating against these malign activities, that it will be reacting consistently against human rights and democracy violations and that it will limit its interactions with the Russian Federation only to areas where EU interests actually lie.”

Since then, issues have risen up not just in connection to the Vrbětice affair, but also in connection to the recent escalation along Russia’s border with Eastern Ukraine, as well as the Russian Federation’s decision to add Alexei Navalny to its terrorism network list.