PRAGUE – The Czech Republic demanded on Wednesday that Russia should allow its expelled diplomats to return to Moscow, threatening that otherwise more Russian diplomats would be asked to leave Prague.
The Czech request looks set to further escalate a diplomatic conflict with Russia over the alleged involvement of Russian spies in a massive ammunition depot explosion. Moscow called Prague's tone “unacceptable while talking to Russia.”
The demand came after Russia ordered 20 Czech diplomats to leave the country on Sunday, in retaliation for the Czech government’s expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats it identified as spies from the GRU and the SVR, Russia’s military and foreign intelligence services.
The new Czech Foreign Minister, Jakub Kulhanek, summoned Russian ambassador to Prague Aleksandr Zmeyevsky to protest what he called Russia's “inappropriate reaction.”
Kulhanek said that because of the high number of staffers at the Russian embassy in Prague, the Czech action “by no means” threatens its normal functioning.
But for the Czechs, the Russian move “paralyzed" their Moscow embassy.
Kulhanek gave the Russians a Thursday noon deadline “to enable the return of all (Czech) expelled diplomats to the Czech embassy in Moscow.”
If not, he warned, “I will decide tomorrow afternoon to reduce the staff of the Russian embassy in Prague so their number equals the current number of staff at the Czech embassy in Moscow.”
The reaction from Moscow was swift and sharp.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that the ministry summoned the Czech ambassador for Thursday.
“We suggest that Prague leaves ultimatums for (its) communication within NATO,” Zakharova said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies. “This kind of tone is unacceptable while talking to Russia.”
Kulhanek said he agreed the move with Prime Minister Andrej Babis and President Milos Zeman, who is known for his pro-Russian views.
“Czech-Russian relations have entered an extraordinary difficult phase and I, as a foreign minister, am not happy about it,” he said.
Czech leaders said on Saturday they have evidence provided by the intelligence and security services that points to the participation of two agents of GRU’s elite Unit 29155 in the 2014 blast that killed two.
Russia denied that.
The same two Russians were charged by British authorities in absentia in 2018 with trying to kill former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury.
Kulhanek made the statement just hours after he was sworn in Wednesday.
Before his meeting with the Russian ambassador, he consulted NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and thanked him for his support “in these uneasy times.” The Czech Republic — once part of Soviet Russian-controlled communist eastern Europe — is now a NATO member.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.