The Czech government alleged Russia was involved in a deadly blast at a munitions site in 2014 and said it’s expelling 18 embassy staffers, signaling that the country is joining growing international pressure to rein in President Vladimir Putin.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s unexpected announcement coincides with concern in the US and Europe about Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine, and hacking alleged by the US.
Acting Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek likened the explosion, which killed two people at a private munitions warehouse, to the 2018 poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England. “I’m very saddened that the Czech-Russian relations are going to suffer such significant damage, but the Czech Republic must respond,” Hamacek said. The Czech government has notified the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and is seeking their support, he said.
The latest rift signals that relations between the Czech Republic, a member of Nato and the EU, and Russia may be headed toward the lowest point since the end of communist rule.
Czech authorities suspect Russia’s GRU intelligence service helped orchestrate the 2014 blast at Vrbetice, Babis said at a briefing. Hamacek said the Russian embassy staff whom he described as spies must leave the country within 48 hours.
An employee who answered the switchboard at the Russian Embassy in Prague outside business hours declined to comment.
Czech police said they’re searching for two men who visited the country using Russian passports with the same names that UK police have said they believe to be aliases of GRU agents who poisoned Skripal four years later. The men used the identities of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, as well as passports with other names, when they traveled within the Czech Republic for about a week in October 2014.
They are wanted in connection with “serious criminal activity,” according to a police statement that didn’t elaborate.
The latest accusations risk escalating tension between Prague and Moscow to the highest level since the former Soviet satellite overthrew communist rule more than three decades ago. Relations have since included diplomatic clashes, such as when the Czechs expelled two Russian diplomats last year for what Prague said was fabrication of information on an alleged poisoning plot against municipal officials.
President Joe Biden’s administration imposed further sanctions on Russia, including limits on buying newly issued sovereign debt. On Wednesday, the Czech government offered to host an as yet unscheduled Biden-Putin summit.
Russia’s alleged role in the explosion marks “an absolutely unprecedented violation of the sovereignty and security of the Czech Republic,” said Jana Cernochova, head of the defense committee of the lower chamber of parliament. “This cannot be tolerated.”