By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Robert Muller
MOSCOW/PRAGUE (Reuters) -The Czech Republic on Thursday ordered Russia to remove more of its diplomatic staff from Prague in an escalation of the worst dispute between the two countries in decades. Moscow said it would swiftly respond.
The spy row flared on Saturday when Prague expelled 18 Russian staff, whom it identified as intelligence officers, saying two Russian spies accused of a nerve agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 were behind an earlier explosion at a Czech ammunition depot that killed two people.
Russia has denied the Czech accusations and on Sunday ordered out 20 Czech staff in retaliation.
Thursday’s decision, announced by Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek, requires Russia to match the number of Czech envoys in Moscow, meaning Russia will have to pull around 20 diplomats and dozens of other staff from Prague by the end of May.
“We will put a ceiling on the number of diplomats at the Russian embassy in Prague at the current level of our embassy in Moscow,” Kulhanek said. A ministry spokeswoman said the decision included both diplomats and other staff.
“At the moment Prague is on the path to destroying relations,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at her weekly briefing.
“We will respond shortly.”
At a time of acute tensions in Russia’s relations with the West, the dispute has prompted NATO and the European Union to throw their support behind the Czech Republic, which is a member of both blocs.
“Allies express 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,” NATO’s 30 allies said in a statement.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow took a negative view of Prague’s “hysteria”.
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.
President Vladimir Putin warned foreign powers in his state of the nation speech on Wednesday not to cross Russia’s “red lines”, saying Moscow would make them regret it.
CZECHS SAY THEIR EMBASSY PARALYSED
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, but Kulhanek said Moscow did not respond.
The Czechs say the loss of the 20 staff has effectively paralyzed the functioning of their Moscow embassy, which is much smaller than the Russian mission in Prague.
The Czechs have 5 diplomats and 19 other staff in Moscow, the Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday, while Russia has 27 diplomats and 67 other staff in Prague after the previous expulsions. That would mean the Czechs ordered a reduction of 70. The ministry did not spell out exact numbers 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.
(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov, Tom Balmforth and Dmitry Antonov; Robert mulle rand Jan Lopatka in Prague; additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; editing by Mark Trevelyan and Gareth Jones, William Maclean)