EU to discuss Czech expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats

Move comes amid Moscow’s alleged involvement in deadly 2014 arms depot explosion

Russian president Vladimir Putin is due make a state-of-the-nation address on Wednesday. Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/SputniK/AFP via Getty

Russian president Vladimir Putin is due make a state-of-the-nation address on Wednesday. Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/SputniK/AFP via Getty

 

The European Union (EU) is to discuss the Czech Republic’s expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats over Moscow’s alleged involvement in a deadly 2014 arms depot explosion, amid rising tension with the Kremlin over issues ranging from the war in Ukraine to the fate of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

During talks on Monday, EU foreign ministers will address the Czech case, Mr Navalny’s deteriorating health and Russia’s continuing build-up of troops and armour close to eastern Ukraine and in Crimea, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014.

The United States and Britain were among several Nato countries to express strong support for Prague, which said the expelled Russian diplomats were undercover officers of Russia’s SVR and GRU intelligences services.

Czech police announced they were searching for two men who were in the country at the time of the arms depot explosion, carrying Russian passports in the names of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov - the aliases used by suspected GRU officers who allegedly poisoned former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury in 2018.

Czech prime minister Andrej Babis said his country had “unequivocal evidence” of Russia’s role in the October 2014 explosion near the town of Vrbetice, which killed “two innocent fathers” working at the ammunition store.

“The Czech Republic is a sovereign state and must adequately react to those unprecedented findings,” he added.

The US embassy in Prague said Washington “stands with its steadfast ally, the Czech Republic. We appreciate their significant action to impose costs on Russia for its dangerous actions on Czech soil.”

British foreign secretary Dominic Raab said the case “exposed the lengths that the Russian intelligence services will go to in their attempts to conduct dangerous and malign operations in Europe” and revealed “a pattern of behaviour by Moscow, following the Novichok attack in Salisbury.”

‘Hostile step’

Moscow denies any involvement in the Skripal poisoning and vowed to take “retaliatory measures” against Prague.

“This hostile step is a continuation of a series of anti-Russian actions taken by the Czech Republic,” Russia’s foreign ministry said on Sunday.

“It is also impossible not to see America’s trace here. In striving to please the US against the backdrop of recent American sanctions against Russia, the Czech authorities in this regard have even outdone their masters across the ocean.”

The US and Russia declared 10 of each other’s diplomats personae non grata last week, and Washington imposed sanctions on dozens of Russian individuals and entities for alleged involvement in election interference, cyberattacks and aggression against Ukraine.

The US and EU have also imposed sanctions on Russian officials over the state’s alleged role in the poisoning of leading Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who almost died after being exposed to Novichok in Siberia last August.

Russia jailed Mr Navalny in January and he began a hunger strike 19 days ago after being refused access to a doctor of his choice for back and leg problems. His allies say he is now in a critical condition and his life is in immediate danger.

Mr Navalny’s anti-corruption organisation, which has angered the Kremlin with its graft investigations, announced nationwide protests for Wednesday, when Russian president Vladimir Putin is due make a state-of-the-nation address.

“We have communicated that there will be consequences if Mr Navalny dies,” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN on Sunday.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc was “deeply concerned about reports that . . . Navalny’s health in the penal colony continues to deteriorate even further. We call on the Russian authorities to grant him immediate access to medical professionals he trusts.”

“The European Union will revert to this issue during the upcoming meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday.”