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Explained: What explains renewed tensions between Russia and the Czech Republic?

The diplomatic escalation between Prague and Moscow is believed to be the most serious since 1989, when the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe ended.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: April 20, 2021 5:25:12 pm
Czech diplomats expelled from Russia arrive at Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague, Czech Republic April 19, 2021. (Reuters Photo: David W Cerny)

A day after the Czech Republic expelled 18 Russian diplomats, the Kremlin on Sunday retaliated by announcing it would send back 20 Czech diplomats, exacerbating relations that have already been strained in recent times.

Prague had accused Russian embassy officials of being intelligence operatives, and said that it suspected them of being involved in a 2014 explosion at an arms depot that left two dead.

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Russia offered scathing criticism of the Czech Republic’s decision, saying, “In their desire to please the United States against the background of recent US sanctions against Russia, Czech authorities in this respect even outdid their masters from across the pond”.

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Last year in June, Russia was accused of being behind a poisoning scare targeting Czech politicians, including the mayor of Prague. Prague had then expelled two Russian diplomats, and Moscow did the same.

Why Prague expelled Russia’s diplomats

According to Czech intelligence, Russian operatives were involved in an October 2014 blast at an arms storage depot in a wooded part of the country near the border with Slovakia. Two people who worked there died, and their remains were found after more than a month. The incident was then labelled an accident.

However, investigative work by Czech authorities led them to lay the blame on Russia, specifically Unit 29155 of its GRU intelligence agency, the BBC reported.

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Reports in Czech media claimed that munitions at the depot were destined for Ukraine to fight Russia-backed forces, or to forces against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, which Russia supports. The Czech Prime Minister, Andrej Babis, said the attack had been aimed at a shipment to a Bulgarian arms trader, Reuters reported.

Link to the Salisbury Poisonings

Two persons linked with the blasts have been identified by the Czech Republic, and stand accused in the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent who along with his daughter Yulia was administered a nerve agent in Salisbury in the UK in 2018.

The accused Alexander Mishkin, 41 (left), and Anatoly Chepigov, 43. (Metropolitan Police via AP)

His poisoning is the subject of the BBC One drama titled, “The Salisbury Poisonings”. Both Skripal and his daughter survived, but a local woman, Dawn Sturgess, was died three months later by the same Novichok nerve agent from a discarded perfume bottle.

Czech authorities matched the images of the men accused of the blast with those of the duo the UK accused for the Salisbury incident.

As per the BBC report, Czech police were able to do this using the passport scans the two had submitted to the company that had been operating the arms depot. The company, Imex Group, had received an email supposedly from the National Guard of Tajikistan, which asked for permission for a site inspection by the two men, one of whom it said was a Tajik national and the other from Moldova.

The two had booked accommodation near the blast site from October 13 to 17, and the blast occurred on October 16. The same day of the explosion, the pair went to Austria and took a flight to Moscow.

Russia has denied all accusations, calling them absurd.

What could happen now

The diplomatic escalation between Prague and Moscow is believed to be the most serious since 1989, when the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe ended.

It also adds to the worsening of relations between the West and Russia, which are already being tested by Russia’s military buildup on its western frontier as well as in Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Twitter that the Czechs “have exposed the lengths that the GRU will go to in their attempts to conduct dangerous and malign operations”.

The US has also said that it stands with its NATO ally in its “firm response against Russia’s subversive actions on Czech soil”. On Sunday, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that Washington had warned Moscow that “there will be consequences” if jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny dies while in prison, where he is on hunger strike.

Washington too has adopted a tough posture against Moscow, and expelled 10 Russian diplomats last week after accusing the Kremlin of carrying out the “SolarWinds” hack and interfering in the 2020 election.

The EU, of which the Czech Republic is a member, is now expected to discuss the accusations at a meeting between foreign ministers.

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