Czechs Oust Scores of Russian Diplomats in Historic Blow to Ties

The Czech Republic slashed the number of Russians allowed at Moscow’s embassy in Prague, depriving its former Soviet-era master of a diplomatic hub in central Europe after blaming its spies for a deadly 2014 explosive attack.

The Czechs demanded Russia cut its embassy personnel from about 100 to a few dozen, matching the size of the Czech mission in Moscow after both sides expelled a record number of envoys in the past week. Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek said Russia agreed and it has until the end of May to comply.

Relations between Prague and Moscow hit the lowest point since at least the end of the Cold War after the Czechs accused Russian agents of staging what they called a terrorist attack by blowing up a munitions warehouse.

The 2014 blast killed two Czechs, caused about $50 million in damage and forced the evacuation of hundreds of people from surrounding villages.

“This isn’t aimed at Russians or the Russian nation,” Kulhanek told reporters. “It’s a reaction to the actions of Russia’s intelligence services.”

Slovakia, the Czechs’ neighbor and former federation partner from which they peacefully split in 1993, kicked out three Russian diplomats in an act of solidarity.

“Prague has taken the path of destroying relations,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. “We will respond.”

Earlier this week, the Czechs sent home 18 people from the Russian embassy in Prague who it said were intelligence officers. Russia retaliated by kicking out 20 Czechs, in a response Prague denounced as “disproportionate.”

Kulhanek cited his envoy to Moscow as saying both countries subsequently agreed to keep the same amount of people -- currently seven diplomats and 25 employees -- at both embassies, CT24 television reported.

The dispute adds to tensions between the Kremlin and the West, stoked by Russia’s recent military buildup on the border with Ukraine and worsening condition of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said Thursday that the country had evidence linking the explosion to Russia’s agents and that it couldn’t leave the violation of its sovereignty without a response.

Russia reacted by saying that Prague’s actions are meant to distract from reports of an alleged attempt to seize power in Belarus, saying the coup plot was hatched in consultation with the U.S. Also on Thursday, Russia said it will begin pulling thousands of troops back from near the Ukrainian border starting Friday, a step that could calm strains with the West.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain three decades ago, Czech politicians have complained about the size of the Russian embassy, accusing the country’s former Soviet masters of using the diplomatic mission as a spy hub. The country’s intelligence service has repeatedly highlighted Russia as a serious security threat.

After the expulsions, the Czech government excluded Russia’s Rosatom from preparations for the $7 billion nuclear reactor tender. The Czech cybersecurity office also warned on Tuesday that the standoff may lead to a surge in cyber attacks.

A large part of Czech population still displays bitter sentiments toward Russia for the 1968 Soviet-led invasion, in which tanks and soldiers of the former Warsaw Pact crushed a nascent democratic movement.

Following the fall of communism in 1989, the central European nation of 10.7 million joined the European Union and NATO, which on Thursday issued a statement expressing “full solidarity with the Czech Republic.”

Still, the Czech Republic is a favorite destination for Russian tourists and expatriates. Aside from the embassy, Moscow has three consulates to serve the tens of thousands of its citizens who call the country home.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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