The Irish Times view on Russia’s secret operations: Going rogue

The escalation in tit-for-tat expulsions of ’diplomats’ by the Czech Republic and Russia has all the hallmarks of a return to the days of the Cold War.

The treatment of Russian Opposition activist Alexei Navalny in Russia has been the subject of angry exchanges between Moscow and other western capitals.  Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

The treatment of Russian Opposition activist Alexei Navalny in Russia has been the subject of angry exchanges between Moscow and other western capitals. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

 

The escalation in tit-for-tat expulsions of “diplomats” by the Czech Republic and Russia has all the hallmarks of a return to the days of the Cold War. They mark a rising muscularity in the Kremlin’s secret operations abroad and a new diplomatic low for its relations with the West since the novichok nerve agent attack in Salisbury, England, in 2018.That led to 100 retaliatory expulsions by the West and the same number by Moscow.

The Czech move came only days after the US expelled Russian diplomats and sanctioned Moscow for election interference and cyber-espionage campaigns . Italy expelled two Russians last month on suspicion of spying after a naval captain was caught selling secrets to Russian intelligence.

Moscow and Kiev are also set to expel each other’s diplomats after the Ukrainian consul to St Petersburg was arrested while, alarmingly, Russia has been massing military units on the Ukrainian border. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell yesterday estimated the build-up at 150,000 troops. Russia denies it is planning to invade but warns it will respond to threats to the ethnic Russian community in the Donbass region.

There have also been angry exchanges between western capitals and Moscow over its treatment of opposition politician Alexei Navalny who was yesterday moved to prison hospital amid fears for his deteriorating health.

Russian military intelligence (GRU) fingerprints – specifically those of operatives of the 29155 GRU unit, specialist in deadly operations across Europe – are all over the blast at a warehouse containing 58 tonnes of ammunition in the eastern Czech Republic in 2014. The Czech government’s identification of two suspects, Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga, linked to the Salisbury attack makes Moscow’s denials deeply implausible.

Yesterday’s meeting of EU foreign ministers was more preoccupied with the Ukrainian build-up, but ministers expressed their solidarity with the Czech Republic. The 2014 attack, they said, was an attack on the union itself.

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