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Russia's circle of friends just got smaller in East Europe

  • Published at 03:37 pm April 20th, 2021
Tanks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces
Tanks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces are seen during drills at an area of the Joint Forces Operation in an unknown location in Eastern Ukraine, in this handout picture released on April 20, 2021 Reuters

The Czech politicians are uniting against Russia after over allegations linking Moscow's GRU intelligence service to the October 2014 explosion in the country

Vladimir Putin may have lost one of his closest allies in Europe as politicians in the Czech Republic are finally uniting against Russia.

By blaming Moscow for a deadly explosion and expelling 18 embassy staffers, leaders in Prague underscored escalating Western concern about Putin's actions as the US sanctions Russia for hacking and election interference, Russian troops mass on the Ukrainian border and the health of imprisoned dissident Alexei Navalny worsens.

The accusations signal a shift from a divided foreign policy in a country that Russia has used to increase its influence in Nato and the European Union. While governments in the Czech Republic have traditionally stuck with their allies, the president, Milos Zeman, has been one of Europe's biggest advocates for closer ties with Moscow and Beijing since coming to power in 2013.

Zeman has wielded his largely ceremonial role to criticize efforts by the US and EU to penalize Putin for Russia's involvement in the conflict in Ukraine and the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal in the UK But in a rare act of unity, Zeman took the government's side against Putin.

"The president has all the information at hand," presidential spokesman Jiri Ovcacek said on Twitter. "The highest constitutional representatives are acting in coordination."

Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the government had the president's "absolute" support.

The Czechs ejected the unprecedented number of diplomats after linking Moscow's GRU intelligence service to the October 2014 explosion at a munitions warehouse in the southeast of the country. The government likened the blast, which killed two workers and caused hundreds to be evacuated from surrounding villages, to the 2018 assassination attempt against Skripal.

Russia rejected the accusations and retaliated by kicking 20 Czech diplomats out of Moscow, a response that has become common in the era of Putin's expansionist foreign policy. The Czechs' decision was based on "made-up pretexts," the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said, accusing Prague of bowing to pressure from Washington.

"In their haste to please the US after the recent American sanctions against Russia, the Czech authorities have even outdone their overseas masters," the ministry said in a statement.

The Czech government considers the Russian retaliation to be disproportionate and said it effectively paralyzed the country's embassy in Moscow.

"With such a strong reaction, the Russians are perhaps signaling how much it bothers them that the Czech security services shattered both of their SVR and GRU units," acting Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek told reporters, referring to Russian intelligence agencies.

The Czech Republic has long been a favored partner for Russia, even as sentiment toward Moscow is largely negative among Czechs who blame the Soviet Union for keeping them locked out of western prosperity during four decades of communism.

Hamacek offered last week to host a summit between Biden and Putin in Prague to ease tensions between the two superpowers, but the chance of that happening now is slim.

"We have to eliminate the growing Russian influence in Czech political, cultural and economic spheres," Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil said on Sunday. "Yesterday we found out from the prime minister that these warnings were not in vain."

The biggest shift that would matter would be with Zeman. He has pushed for more engagement for almost a decade, most recently by calling for increased Russian investment and the adoption of its coronavirus vaccines, which haven't been approved by EU regulators.

The president approved the dismissal of Czech Health Minister Jan Blatny this month after accusing him of letting more people to die of Covid-19 by refusing to use Russian and Chinese vaccines.

The alleged meddling may have a significant business impact as well. While Zeman has been a vocal advocate of Russian companies taking part in the $7 billion expansion of the Dukovany nuclear plant, Czech politicians from both sides of the aisle rushed to say it's now almost certain that Russia will be excluded from the tender.

Shortly after Babis alleged Russia's involvement on Saturday, Czech police said they're searching for two men who were in the country at the time of the deadly explosion in 2014, using Russian passports with names that U.K. police have linked to GRU agents who poisoned Skripal four years later.

"This is a great blow to Czech-Russian relations," Tomas Pojar, a former Czech diplomat, said by phone. "Russia will now try to defend itself."

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