A day after the government of the Czech Republic blamed operatives from Russia’s 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 ejected in response.
The expulsions signal further escalation of tensions between the Kremlin and western governments, reaching an intensity not seen since the Cold War. The spat between the Czech Republic and Russia comes just days after the United States imposed heavy sanctions on Russian government officials and businesses in response to a large-scale hacking of American government computer systems.
“In an effort to please the U.S.A. following recent American sanctions against Russia, the Czech government in this instance even exceeded its overseas masters,” the Russian Foreign Ministry statement said.
The expulsions will most likely decimate the Czech diplomatic presence in Russia, where the Czechs maintain only several dozen diplomats.
By contrast, the Russian Embassy in Prague, the Czech capital, is believed to be one of the country’s largest in Europe and is used, security experts say, as a staging area for intelligence operations carried out in a number of Western countries.
The 2014 explosions, first in the village of Vlachovice and then, two months later, at a nearby ammunition depot, were never fully explained, though at the time authorities raised the possibility of sabotage. Two workers at the government-owned depot were killed.
The blasts came at a time when Ukrainian forces were desperate for weapons to beat back gains made by Russian-backed separatists, as well as when Russian forces were deepening their involvement in the Syrian civil war.
On Saturday, the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babis, announced that a subsection of Russia’s military intelligence agency known as Unit 29155 was responsible for the explosions.
The unit, which has operated for more than a decade, has been tied to a number of violent actions around Europe, including an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016 and the poisoning of Sergei V. Skripal, a former Russian spy, in the United Kingdom two years later.
The British government charged in absentia two operatives from Unit 29155 with carrying out the poisoning.
On Saturday, the Czech authorities said that those two operatives, known by their aliases, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, had been in the Czech Republic in the days leading up to, and including, the first explosion in October 2014. In a statement, the organized-crime unit of the Czech national police said that the two men were wanted in connection with an unspecified “serious crime.”