PRAGUE -- The Czech Republic has said it wants more Russian diplomats to leave the country and neighboring Slovakia has decided to eject three Russian Embassy staff in solidarity, as tensions between Prague and Moscow escalate over Russia's alleged role in a deadly 2014 explosion at a Czech arms depot.
Newly appointed Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek said on April 22 that Russia won't be allowed to have more diplomats in Prague than the Czechs currently have at their embassy in Moscow.
He did not say how many Russian Embassy staff members would be affected by the move, but in an interview with Lidovky.cz published late on April 21 he indicated that "about" 60 Russian embassy staff would be expelled if Moscow ignored a deadline to allow Czech diplomats, who were expelled recently in a retaliatory move, to return to work by noon on April 22. Moscow had called the ultimatum "unacceptable."
"We will cut the number of diplomats at the Russian Embassy in Prague to match the number of our staff at the embassy in Moscow," Kulhanek told a news briefing after the deadline had passed.
"The decision took effect today. Russia has been given until the end of May to recall their staff," he added.
In response, Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said it had demanded that the Czech Embassy "reduce the number of its employees in Moscow taking into account the existing disparity when it comes to locally recruited staff."
"The [Czech] ambassador was told that we reserve the right to take other steps in the event the hysterical anti-Russian campaign spirals further," Zakharova said in a statement.
After Kulhanek's announcement, Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger announced that "three representatives of the Russian diplomatic mission must end their activities in Slovakia and must leave the country within seven days."
Heger said Slovakia made the decision "following recent events in the Czech Republic and after having thoroughly evaluated information of our intelligence services that closely cooperate with the intelligence services of our allies."
The Russian Embassy in Bratislava called the decision "a step contradicting the historically friendly relations between our nations," and said the Slovak government would be informed of Russia's response "in the near future."
On April 19, 18 Russian diplomats identified by the Czechs as being intelligence operatives were expelled from their posts in Prague, prompting Moscow to retaliate with the expulsion of 20 Czech Embassy employees in Moscow.
The Czechs said they were surprised by the size of the Russian move, which they noted would severely hamper the operations of the embassy in Moscow.
"The aim is to bring the situation at the Russian Embassy in line with that at our embassy in Moscow at the moment," Kulhanek said in explaining the number of possible expulsions.
The tit-for-tat moves over the Czech allegations have triggered Prague's biggest dispute with Russia since the 1989 end of communist rule, putting the small Central European NATO member at the center of rising tensions between Moscow and the West.
The Czechs said in a statement before the announcement that the North Atlantic Council, NATO's principal political decision-making body, had been informed of the situation.
"The allies expressed deep concern over the destabilizing actions Russia continues to carry out across the Euro-Atlantic area, including on Alliance territory, and stand in full solidarity with the Czech Republic," the April 22 statement said.
The Kremlin has rejected what it called Prague's "baseless accusations" and said the Czech moves were "unreasonable and harmful to bilateral relations."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, commenting on Kulhanek's interview with Lidovky.cz, said that President Vladimir Putin in his annual state-of-the-nation address on April 21 "had talked about the futility of issuing demands" against Russia.
The Czech Foreign Ministry says the number of Czech diplomats in Moscow after the expulsions sits at five, plus 19 other staff. Russia's Embassy in Prague now has 27 diplomats and 67 other staff, according to the ministry. Both countries have additional staff at consulates in other cities.
As a result of the dispute, the Czech government has already decided to eliminate Russia's state-run corporation Rosatom from a multibillion-dollar tender to build a new unit at the Dukovany nuclear power plant.
Interior Minister Jan Hamacek, who was acting foreign minister until Kulhanek's appointment, said that Prague would also no longer consider buying Russia's Sputnik V vaccine against COVID-19.
Citing Czech intelligence, the government said that Russia's GRU military intelligence agency orchestrated the explosion in the eastern town of Vrbetice in 2014 in what the Foreign Ministry called "an unacceptable violation of the state sovereignty and national security of the Czech Republic."
The October 16 blast set off 50 metric tons of stored ammunition, killing two people. Two months later, another explosion of 13 tons of ammunition occurred at the same site.
In connection with the October blast, Czech police said they were seeking two suspected Russian agents also identified as suspects in the 2018 poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in England.
However, the open-source investigation organization Bellingcat said the Russian operation that the Czech authorities had linked to the blast in Vrbetice involved at least six GRU operatives.
Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, and his daughter Yulia nearly died after being exposed to what British authorities later concluded was Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent. A British woman who accidentally came into contact with the substance died.
Britain's NATO allies responded to the Skripal poisoning by imposing sanctions on Russia and expelling diplomats.