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Russia tells 20 Czech diplomats to leave by Monday night in response to Prague’s expulsions

Russia tells 20 Czech diplomats to leave by Monday night in response to Prague’s expulsions
Twenty Czech diplomats have been declared personae non-gratae and must now leave Russia before the end of April 19, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Sunday, a day after Czech officials expelled 18 diplomats to Moscow.

Earlier on Sunday, the Czech ambassador to Moscow, Vítezslav Pivonka, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry, which expressed a “strong protest” over Prague’s actions this weekend. Citing allegations of the involvement of the Russian intelligence in a 2014 blast at a military depot in the Czech Republic, which was initially thought to be an accident, the Czech government ordered 18 Russian diplomats out of the country. The decision was announced on Saturday by Prime Minister Andrej Babis and Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek.

The envoy was also informed that 20 staff members of the Czech embassy in Moscow would have to leave Russia by the end of Monday, April 19. Reports in the media on Saturday cited diplomatic sources as having said that a proportionate retaliation from Moscow would effectively shut down the embassy, but it was not immediately clear how severely the work of the diplomatic mission has actually been affected.

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Notably, the diplomatic scandal rocked Czech-Russian relations on the eve of FM Hamacek’s scheduled visit to Moscow, where he was to have discussed the possible purchase of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. 

The breakdown in relations has also disrupted Russian-Czech cooperation in the field of nuclear energy. On Sunday, Czech Minister of Industry and Trade Karel Havlicek said Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy corporation, Rosatom, would likely be barred from tendering for renovating the Czech Republic’s Dukovany nuclear power plant.

Also on Saturday, Czech police said they were looking for two Russian citizens who were in the area of the military depot at the time of the blast, apparently implying their involvement without directly saying so. The news was met with much ridicule in Russia, as the suspects are the same men who were accused by London of the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018 – an allegation denied by Moscow. Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov have previously denied any links to Russian intelligence, claiming they were businessmen and complaining that Britain’s unsubstantiated accusations had ruined their lives.

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The US and other NATO allies were quick to support Prague in its decision to kick Russian diplomats out.

“The US stands with the Czech Republic in its firm response against Russia’s subversive actions on Czech soil,” the US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a Twitter post. The UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said London stands “in full support of our Czech allies,” alleging they “exposed the lengths” that Russian intelligence is willing to go in its “dangerous and malign operations in Europe.”

Officials in Moscow have called the allegations “absurd.” In a statement on Sunday, the Foreign Ministry has accused Prague of doing Washington’s bidding.

“An American trace” in the Czech decision to expel the Russian was hard to ignore, the ministry said, pointing to the fact that it was announced shortly after the US asked ten Russian embassy employees to leave the country. However, in their attempt to “please” Washington “the Czech authorities even managed to outdo their masters on the other side of the Atlantic,” it added.

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