A day after the government of the Czech Republic blamed agents of the Russian military intelligence agency for a series of mysterious explosions at an ammunition depot in 2014 and expelled 18 Russian diplomats, the Russian government announced on Sunday that 20 Czech diplomats would be expelled in response.
The expulsions signal a further escalation of tensions between the Kremlin and Western governments, reaching an intensity not seen since the Cold War. The conflict between the Czech Republic and Russia comes just days after the United States imposed heavy sanctions on Russian government officials and companies in response to a large-scale hack into U.S. government computer systems.
In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry called the Czech accusations “absurd” and accused the government of being an American puppet.
“In an effort to please the United States in the wake of recent US sanctions against Russia, the Czech government in this case has even overtaken its masters overseas,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
The expulsions will most likely decimate the Czech diplomatic presence in Russia, where the Czechs only maintain several dozen diplomats.
In contrast, the Russian embassy in Prague, the Czech capital, is considered one of the country’s largest in Europe and is used, according to security experts, as a staging area for intelligence operations conducted in a number of western countries.
The 2014 explosions, first in the village of Vlachovice and then, two months later, in a nearby munitions depot, were never fully explained, although at the time the authorities raised the possibility of ‘sabotage. Two workers at the government depot were killed.
The blasts came at a time when Ukrainian forces were desperate for weapons to counter the gains made by the Russian-backed separatists, as well as when Russian forces were stepping up their involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis on Saturday announced that a sub-section of the Russian military intelligence agency known as Unit 29155 was responsible for the blasts.
The unit, which has been operating for more than a decade, has been linked to a number of violent actions across Europe, including an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016 and the poisoning of Sergei V. Skripal, a former Russian spy, in the UK. two years later.
The British government accused two officers of Unit 29155 in absentia of the poisoning.
On Saturday, the Czech authorities said that the two agents, known by their pseudonyms, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, were in the Czech Republic in the days leading up to and including the first explosion in October 2014. In a statement, the unit organized crime police of the Czech National Police said the two men were wanted for an unspecified “serious crime”.