Russia’s Circle of Friends Just Got Smaller in East Europe
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, reacts during an annual news conference in Moscow. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

Russia’s Circle of Friends Just Got Smaller in East Europe

Vladimir Putin may have lost one of his closest allies in Europe as politicians in the Czech Republic are finally uniting against Russia and calling for their partners to do the same.

By blaming Moscow for a deadly explosion and expelling 18 embassy staffers, leaders in Prague underscored escalating Western concern about Putin’s actions as the U.S. sanctions Russia for hacking and election interference, Russian troops mass on the Ukrainian border and the health of imprisoned dissident Alexey Navalny worsens.

Russia retaliated in a move the Czech government said effectively paralyzed its embassy in Moscow. The decision from Prague signals a shift from a divided foreign policy in a country that Russia has used to increase its influence in NATO and the European Union.

While Czech cabinets have traditionally stuck with their allies, the president, Milos Zeman, has been one of Europe’s biggest advocates for closer ties with Moscow and Beijing since coming to power in 2013. He has wielded his largely ceremonial role to oppose U.S. or EU penalties for Russia’s role the conflict in Ukraine and the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal in the U.K. But in a rare act of unity, Zeman took the government’s side against Putin.

“The president has all the information at hand,” presidential spokesman Jiri Ovcacek said on Twitter. “The highest constitutional representatives are acting in coordination.” Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the government had the president’s “absolute” support.

Diplomats Cast Out

The Czechs ejected the unprecedented number of diplomats after linking Moscow’s GRU intelligence service to the October 2014 explosion at a munitions warehouse in the southeast of the country. The government likened the blast, which killed two workers and caused hundreds to be evacuated from surrounding villages, to the 2018 assassination attempt against Skripal.

Russia rejected the accusations and kicked 20 Czech diplomats out of Moscow, a reaction Prague called disproportionate. The Czechs’ decision was based on “made-up pretexts,” the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said, accusing Prague of bowing to pressure from Washington.

“In their haste to please the U.S. after the recent American sanctions against Russia, the Czech authorities have even outdone their overseas masters,” the ministry said in a statement.

Czech acting Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek told reporters the government is currently debating further steps against Russia. He said he asked his EU counterparts at a virtual meeting to show solidarity by either making a statement or possible expelling of Russian intelligence services officers during the meeting, the CTK news service reported.

The bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the EU stands “unified and with solidarity” at the Czech Republic’s side but that there hadn’t been a request for “a widespread expulsion of Russian diplomats.” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said Russia had demonstrated it “essentially supports terrorism.”

“We should look at how we can reduce the number of Russian spies in the European Union under the disguise of diplomats,” Landsbergis said after a virtual meeting of foreign ministers.

The Czech Republic has long been a favored partner for Russia, even as sentiment toward Moscow is largely negative among Czechs who blame the Soviet Union for keeping them locked out of western prosperity during four decades of communism.

Hamacek offered last week to host a summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Putin in Prague to ease tensions between the two superpowers, but the chance of that happening now is slim.

But the biggest shift that would matter would be with Zeman. He has pushed for more engagement for almost a decade, most recently by calling for increased Russian investment and the adoption of its Covid-19 vaccines, which haven’t been approved by EU regulators.

Vaccines, Reactors

The president approved the dismissal of Czech Health Minister Jan Blatny this month after accusing him of letting more people to die from Covid-19 by refusing to use Russian and Chinese vaccines.

The alleged meddling may have a significant business impact as well. While Zeman has been a vocal advocate of Russian companies taking part in the $7 billion expansion of the Dukovany nuclear plant, Czech politicians from both sides of the aisle rushed to say it’s now almost certain that Russia will be excluded from the tender.

“This is a great blow to Czech-Russian relations,” Tomas Pojar, a former Czech diplomat, said by phone. “Russia will now try to defend itself.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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