Built in the 1950s as a monument to brotherly relations between Moscow and Prague, the vast and imposing Czech Embassy in the heart of the Russian capital was designed for many employees. Today, its five accredited diplomats could each have three floors of the complex to themselves.
The embassy staff was one of the the biggest victims a diplomatic war of tit-for-tat evictions between Russia and Western countries during the last fortnight in which 152 officials of Russian embassies abroad or foreign embassies in Moscow lost their accreditation.
Most of the expulsions involve Eastern European countries with historical ties to Russia, from the Baltic States to Bulgaria, highlighting both the dire state of the region’s ties with Moscow and the difficulty in rebuilding the relations for the diplomats who remain.
“It’s not a storm in a teacup. What we see here is the end of the era of Russia’s presence in its former Soviet satellites, ”said Maxim Samorukov, researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“For decades, and even after the Cold War, Moscow has enjoyed a good presence and influence in these countries, thanks to the legacy of the Warsaw Pact,” he added. “It seriously undermines Russia’s relations there. The loss is significant. “
Most of the evictions since April 15 have been triggered by The Prague indictment that Russian spies were behind explosions at a Czech weapons depot in 2014 that killed two people.
This prompted Prague to expel 18 Russian diplomats, and when Moscow expelled 20 people from the Czech embassy in response, Prague expelled 63 other Russians, requiring that the number of people working in the respective missions of the two countries be equal.
In solidarity with the Czech Republic, other countries like Lithuania and Slovakia also expelled Russian diplomats, triggering mirror responses from Moscow, while Bulgaria also expelled a Russian diplomat after probing Moscow’s ties to explosions at its arms depots. Separately, the United States and Russia kicked 10 diplomats apart as part of new sanctions packages against each other.
The impact will be most felt in Central and Eastern Europe. Former members of the USSR, such as Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Ukraine, and former Warsaw Pact allies such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, were considered by Moscow to be important European partners after 1991.
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Even since many of these states joined the EU and NATO, strong energy links such as gas pipelines and long-term oil and gas supply contracts, cross-border industrial investments, and large expat populations meant that Russia had an oversized presence.
But Moscow’s influence has steadily eroded since relations with Brussels and Washington began to deteriorate following Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 and its annexation of Crimea in 2014. And the tit-for deportations This month’s report does not suggest that either side is hoping for an overthrow.
Andrius Tursa, analyst for Central and Eastern Europe at Teneo, a risk consultancy firm, said the unrest “would tarnish Russia’s reputation” in the region. “This could lead governments to [central and eastern Europe] further reduce their cooperation with Russia in strategic sectors and security-sensitive areas. “
“We want to support the Czechs. We believe that if they have taken such a drastic step, they know what they are doing. So it was to hell with the Russians, ”said an official from a country that expelled Russian diplomats. “And now we have this big building in Moscow, and no staff!”
“Here in Central Europe, the geopolitical question and the subject of our belonging is such a huge problem,” he added. “It’s a call to the west, to America. Russia is a tool. Deporting Russian diplomats is one way of showing: “Look, we are with you”. “
This week, Russian state television broadcast what it said was a leaked list of nine countries Moscow was to call “hostile.” Besides the United States and the United Kingdom, the other seven were all former members of the Warsaw Pact. Five were former members of the USSR.
“The actions of Prague and Sofia cause us irritation, regret, misunderstanding and the desire to see changes in this schizophrenic position,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday.
“What the Czechs have done, the way the Bulgarians have joined us, and how the Baltic republics and others include themselves in this famous ‘solidarity’, we will not tolerate it,” he added.
A legacy of the Warsaw Pact, Russian embassies in cities like Warsaw and Prague are sprawling palaces that dwarf many local government buildings.
Until recent evictions, the Russian Embassy in Prague was the city’s largest foreign mission in terms of staff, and has long been accused by the Czech intelligence agency of harboring a large spy ring.
“Czech diplomacy, and frankly the whole European and transatlantic environment, has always been worried about the number of Russian diplomats in Prague and this was the opportunity to get rid of them,” said Michal Koran, chairman of the Global Arena Research Institute in Prague.
“In recent weeks, it was a question of unmasking Russia,” he added. “The decisions taken will clear the table in terms of diplomatic relations, and I do not see a viable program moving forward.”