The Czech Republic may be set to expel dozens of Russian diplomats, after the Foreign Ministry called on Moscow to scale back the size of its embassy in Prague.
Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek called on Moscow to reduce the size of its diplomatic mission in Prague to the size of the Czech Republic’s embassy in Moscow by the end of May.
“The Czech Republic is a self-confident country and behaves accordingly,” he said.
Kulhanek, 36, was appointed to the post a day earlier.
The exchange follows a spate of diplomatic expulsions after Prague accused Moscow of being behind blasts that occurred at an ammunition depot in 2014.
The Czech Republic currently has 24 embassy staff members in Moscow, including five diplomats.
Prague had previously called on Moscow to allow diplomats Russia had expelled to return.
The Czech move could affect up to 70 Russian diplomats and embassy staff members. Moscow presently has 94 members of embassy staff there, including 27 diplomats.
Moscow, angered by the ultimatum, described the move as “hysteria” and vowed to retaliate. Russian government spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Prague’s call was seen “extremely negatively,” in comments reported by Interfax news agency.
Later on Thursday, Russia issued a statement calling Prague to further reduce the number of staff in its embassy, without naming a figure.
“Prague started down the path of destroying relations, the response will not be long in coming,” spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, according to Interfax news agency.
Last week, Prague expelled 18 Russian embassy staff, following revelations from an investigation into the 2014 explosions at a Czech ammunition depot used by commercial defence companies.
Russia retaliated with 20 expulsions, rendering the Czech embassy effectively unable to work.
The spat arose on Saturday after Prague said Russian operatives were responsible for the blasts at the depot in which two people were killed.
Russian intelligence services caused the explosions at the site in Vrbetice, according to Czech investigations.
Czech police are now searching for two Russians who are also wanted in connection with the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain in 2018. A woman there who was not involved died after coming into contact with the poison.
The events in Vrbetice were allegedly a larger-scale operation involving at least four other agents.
Among others, a senior Russian intelligence officer flew to Vienna at the time in question, according to a report by Respect magazine.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis described the blasts as an “unprecedented terrorist attack.”
A Kremlin spokesman, meanwhile, called the accusations “absurd and completely unfounded.”
Earlier on Thursday, the NATO alliance expressed its solidarity on Thursday with fellow member Czech Republic.
“Allies express deep concern over the destabilising actions Russia continues to carry out across the Euro-Atlantic area, including on alliance territory, and stand in full solidarity with the Czech Republic,” a joint statement from the defence alliance said.
An EU spokesperson told reporters in Brussels that the bloc supported member state Czech Republic in its decisions.
In a show of support, Slovakia also expelled three Russian diplomats, giving them seven days to leave the country, said Prime Minister Eduard Heger, according to TASR news agency.
Russia called the expulsions unfounded and reserved the right to respond, according to Interfax news agency.
Meanwhile German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas offered his support to Kulhanek in a phone call on Thursday, to ensure the embassy could continue to work.
“The Czech and German embassies in Moscow are already in direct contact on this,” the ministry said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also promised her support to the Czech Republic in a phone call with Babis.
It is the most serious conflict between the two countries in decades, observers say.