Central European states defend Prague in spy and sabotage row with Russia

Moscow and EU and Nato capitals continue wave of diplomatic expulsions

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki: called a  video conference with his Czech, Slovak and Hungarian counterparts to discuss the diplomatic  dispute, and Russia’s recent build-up of troops near Ukraine. Photograph: Wojciech Olkusnik

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki: called a video conference with his Czech, Slovak and Hungarian counterparts to discuss the diplomatic dispute, and Russia’s recent build-up of troops near Ukraine. Photograph: Wojciech Olkusnik

 

Central European states have closed ranks around the Czech Republic in its row with Russia over alleged spying and sabotage, as Moscow and EU and Nato capitals continued to expel each other’s diplomats amid tension over a host of issues.

Prague last week expelled 18 suspected Russian intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover at the country’s embassy in the city, after accusing Moscow of being behind deadly explosions at a Czech arms deport in 2014.

Russia denied the allegations and responded by sending 20 Czech diplomats home, prompting Prague to tell Moscow to recall a further 63 diplomats and support staff from its embassy.

Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki called an urgent video conference on Monday with his Czech, Slovak and Hungarian counterparts to discuss the dispute, and Russia’s recent build-up of troops near Ukraine and concern over developments in Belarus, where Kremlin-backed president Alexander Lukashenko has suggested that neighbouring Poland is involved in efforts to oust him.

The leaders expressed “full solidarity” with Prague “regarding the involvement of the Russian military intelligence operatives in the explosion at the Vrbetice ammunition depot in 2014”.

‘Deplorable aggression’

“We condemn . . . yet another deplorable act of aggression and breach of international law committed by Russia on European soil,” they added in a joint statement.

“We denounce the disproportionate measures taken by Russia in response to the entirely justified decision of the Czech Republic to expel 18 Russian intelligence officers from its territory . . . We will not allow these [Russian intelligence] activities to divide Europe. ”

Prague suspects the arms depot blast is linked to two Russian military intelligence officers whom the UK accuses of poisoning former Russian spy Sergei Skripal with the Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury in 2018.

Moscow denies responsibility for those incidents and for a string of recent spy scandals that have resulted in countries including Poland, Bulgaria and Italy expelling Russian diplomats for alleged espionage.

The US and Russia sent 10 of each other’s diplomats home earlier this month, and last week Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia expelled Russian embassy staff in solidarity with the Czech Republic.

Classified documents

Romania announced on Monday that Russia’s deputy military attache in Bucharest, Aleksei Grichayev, was now persona non grata and must leave the country.

Moscow, meanwhile, expelled Italy’s deputy naval attache almost a month after Rome sent home two Russian diplomats following the arrest of an Italian naval captain who allegedly sold classified documents to a Russian military official.

Despite the chill in relations with the West, the Kremlin said a summit between Russian president Vladimir Putin and US counterpart Joe Biden could take place this summer.

In Kiev on Monday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he was confident he would hold talks with Mr Putin soon and that a new ceasefire in eastern Ukraine could be agreed in the coming days.