Czechs threaten to expel all Russian diplomats

Published April 21, 2021
A woman holds an EU flag next to police officers during a protest over the Russian intelligence services alleged involvement in an ammunition depot explosion in Vrbetice area in 2014, outside the Russian Embassy in Prague on April 18. — Reuters
A woman holds an EU flag next to police officers during a protest over the Russian intelligence services alleged involvement in an ammunition depot explosion in Vrbetice area in 2014, outside the Russian Embassy in Prague on April 18. — Reuters

PRAGUE: The Czech Republic threatened on Tuesday to expel all Russian diplomats from Prague, accusing Moscow of orchestrating an “unprecedented terror attack” on Czech territory in 2014.

“I am ready for everything. Even to build relationships from scratch. Which means we would send them all home,” Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek said on Facebook.

He had earlier told reporters he would summon the Russian ambassador on Wednesday to disclose further steps after the expulsion this weekend of 18 Russian diplomats believed by Prague to be secret agents, and of 20 Czechs from Moscow in retaliation.

“We are calling for collective action of EU and Nato countries aimed at solidarity expulsions,” Hamacek said.

The call came after Prague accused Russian secret services of being behind an explosion at an ammunition depot near the eastern village of Vrbetice in 2014 that killed two people.

Czech police are seeking two men in connection with the blast, along with a second non-fatal blast in the Czech Republic in 2014. The men have also been identified as suspects in the 2018 poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the 2014 explosion was “an unprecedented terror attack on our territory which is unacceptable”.

He apologised for having remarked a day earlier that the explosion did not appear to be an act of state terrorism, as it targeted goods owned by a Bulgarian arms dealer.

The Russian diplomats expelled in the row left their posts at their sprawling embassy in Prague on Monday, as did the staff ordered to leave the much smaller Czech representation in Moscow. “We have expelled 18 officers of the (secret services) SVR and GRU and we are able to prove that every single one of them was just that,” Hamacek said.

He said he had summoned Russian Ambassador Alexander Zmeyevsky to protest against what Prague views as a disproportionate response in expelling 20 Czech diplomats from Moscow. “It is only logical that if the Czech Republic takes further action, the Russian ambassador must be the first to hear it,” Hamacek said.

Escalating tensions

As the row escalated, the Czech government announced on Monday that Russia’s atomic energy agency Rosatom would be ruled out of a tender to build a new multi-billion-euro unit at a Czech nuclear plant.

Hamacek also said that Prague would no longer consider buying the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19. Citing an intelligence report, the Czech government has said that Russia’s military secret service GRU orchestrated the two explosions in 2014, both of which struck ammunition depots.

Babis said the ammunition targeted had belonged to a Bulgarian arms dealer who probably sold arms to entities fighting against Russia, although he did not say where.

The attacks happened in the same year that Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and a conflict broke out between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels in the east of the country.

Important mission

The Czech weekly Respekt, working together with other media outlets including investigative website Bellingcat, said six GRU agents, which carries out foreign operations, were involved in the explosions.

“At the moment we only know about two events involving (unit chief Andrei) Averyanov outside Russia, and given his high position in the GRU, this suggests they must have been important for the Russian government,” Respekt wrote.

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2021

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