Russia on Sunday expelled 20 Czech diplomats in retaliation for a slew of diplomatic expulsions by Prague and gave the affected Czech diplomats just over 24 hours to leave the country, the RIA news agency quoted the foreign ministry as saying.
The Czech Republic on Saturday expelled 18 Russian diplomats, giving them 72 hours to leave, after saying that two alleged Russian spies accused of a nerve agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 were behind a deadly explosion at a Czech ammunition depot four years earlier.
The Czech Republic said it had informed NATO and European Union allies that it suspected Russia of causing the 2014 blast, and European Union foreign ministers were set to discuss the matter at their meeting on Monday.
The US State Department commended Prague’s firm response to “Russia’s subversive actions on Czech soil”.
The row is the biggest between Prague and Moscow since the end of decades of Soviet domination of eastern Europe in 1989.
It also adds to growing tensions between Russia and the West in general, raised in part by Russia’s military build-up on its Western borders and in Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, after a surge in fighting between government and pro-Russian forces in Ukraine’s east.
Czech police said they were seeking two Russians in connection with the 2014 blast that killed two people, and who carried passports used by suspects in the attempted poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in 2018.
Russia said Prague’s accusations were absurd as it had previously blamed the blast at Vrbetice, 300 km (210 miles) east of the capital, on the depot’s owners.
It called the expulsions “the continuation of a series of anti-Russian actions undertaken by the Czech Republic in recent years”, accusing Prague of “striving to please the United States against the backdrop of recent US sanctions against Russia”.
Earlier this week, the US announced sanctions and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats in retaliation for what Washington said was the Kremlin’s US election interference, a massive cyber attack and other hostile activity.
Russia responded in kind, saying it would expel 10 US diplomats and take other retaliatory moves in a tense showdown with Washington.
EU and NATO partners stood by Czech officials, with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab saying on Sunday that Britain “stands in full support of our Czech allies”.
“I resolutely condemn the subversive activities targeting the security of … our closest neighbour and ally,” Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok said in a tweet.
“Killing the citizens of the Czech Republic on its territory by another country, that’s almost an act of war,” protester Tomas Peszynski told AFP news agency at a rally outside the Russian embassy in Prague on Sunday afternoon.
About 100 protesters sported banners, saying: “We’re not Russia’s backyard”. They chanted “Shame” while waving EU and NATO flags.
The night before, police detained seven people who had smeared the embassy wall with ketchup, symbolising blood.
Czech politicians joined the outcry, with government ministers saying Russian companies should not take part in the planned construction of a new nuclear unit worth billions of euros for security reasons.
“I can’t imagine (Russian energy giant) Rosatom getting as far as the security assessment,” Industry Minister Karel Havlicek said.