Russia said on Thursday it would retaliate against any new steps taken by the Czech Republic against Russian diplomatic staff as a spy row between the two countries threatened to escalate into a new round of expulsions.
Russia ordered out 20 Czech diplomats on Sunday, after Prague expelled 18 Russians the day before. On Wednesday the Czech Republic demanded that Moscow allow the return of all 20 staff to Moscow by Thursday or face further evictions of its diplomats from Prague.
The dispute is the sharpest between the two countries since the end of the Communist era in 1989 and comes at a time of acute tensions in Russia’s relations with the West.
In the past week, Moscow has also kicked out diplomats from Bulgaria, Poland and the United States in retaliation for expulsions of its own staff.
The Czechs say the loss of the 20 staff has effectively paralysed the functioning of their Moscow embassy, which is much smaller than the Russian mission in Prague.
Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, accused Czech authorities of staging a “performance” and pledged Moscow would hit back if Prague took any more actions against Russian diplomats.
“If (we are on) the confrontational path chosen by Prague, then there will be an appropriate response,” Zakharova told radio station Govorit Moskva, RIA news agency reported.
Prague expelled the 18 Russians, whom it identified as intelligence officers, after saying two Russian spies accused of a nerve agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 were behind a fatal explosion at a Czech ammunition depot four years earlier.
Russia has denied the accusations, which the Kremlin described as “provocative and unfriendly.” Zakharova said Prague had not supported its accusations of alleged Russian involvement in the blast with any evidence.
Her comments came a day after she said the Russian foreign ministry would again summon the Czech ambassador on Thursday.
The two suspects named by Prague, known under the aliases Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, are reportedly part of the elite Unit 29155 of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service.
Britain charged them in absentia with attempted murder after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury in 2018.
The Skripals survived, but a member of the public died. The Kremlin denied involvement in the incident.