The Czech Republic has asked its EU and NATO partners to expel Russian diplomats in solidarity following a diplomatic spat between Prague and Moscow, a day after Ukraine called on the EU to extend economic sanctions against Russia over renewed tensions in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
Czech Republic Foreign and Interior Minister Jan Hamacek said Tuesday that he would summon the Russian ambassador on Wednesday to disclose further steps after the expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats believed by Prague to be secret agents, and of 20 Czechs from Moscow in retaliation.
The call comes after Prague accused Russian secret services of orchestrating a fatal explosion on Czech territory in 2014.
Eighteen Russian diplomats identified by Czech intelligence as spies left their posts on Monday, along with 20 Czech diplomats based in Moscow.
Hamacek said he had summoned Russian Ambassador Alexander Zmeyevsky for Wednesday afternoon to protest against what Prague views as a disproportionate response.
Citing an intelligence report, the Czech government has said that Russia’s military secret service GRU orchestrated two explosions in 2014, one of which killed two people and caused extensive material damage.
In connection with the blasts, Czech police are seeking two men also identified as suspects in the 2018 poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England.
‘Spark’ could set off Ukraine clash
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Tuesday that Russia would soon have more than 120,000 troops on Ukraine's border and called for new Western economic sanctions to deter Moscow from "further escalation".
“Sectoral sanctions are a matter of time and Russia’s behaviour. From my recent interactions with German and French foreign ministers, I can conclude that they understand this reality,” Kuleba told an online news conference with international media.
He said Ukraine wanted a diplomatic solution to renewed tensions with Moscow over eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014, but added that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declined a request for talks.
In a glum assessment of EU relations with Moscow after a virtual meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that in the face of the Russia's military buildup near Ukraine’s borders, it would only take “a spark” to set off a confrontation.
However, he said that despite the developments, “for the time being, there is no move in the field of more sanctions” to be imposed on Russia.
He also said that the condition of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was “critical” and that the 27-nation group would hold the Kremlin accountable for his health and safety.
Doctors prevented from seeing Navalny
Several doctors were prevented Tuesday from seeing Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a prison hospital after his three-week hunger strike and prosecutors detailed a sweeping, new case against his organisation.
Navalny was transferred Sunday from a penal colony east of Moscow to a prison hospital in Vladimir, a city 180 kilometres (110 miles) east of the capital after his lawyers and associates said his condition has dramatically worsened.
Reports about Navalny’s rapidly deteriorating health have drawn international outrage.
His personal physician, Dr. Anastasia Vasilyeva, led three other medical experts to try to visit Navalny at the prison clinic and the IK-3 prison in the city of Vladimir. They were denied entry after waiting for hours outside the gates.
Navalny, who is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most adamant opponent, has been on a hunger strike since March 31 to protest the prison officials’ refusal to let his doctors visit him and provide adequate treatment for his back pains and numbness in his legs.
Russia’s penitentiary service insists that Navalny was getting all the medical help he needs.
The prison service said in a statement Monday that Navalny’s condition was deemed “satisfactory”, but another of his physicians, Dr. Yaroslav Ashikhmin, said over the weekend that test results provided by his family show Navalny has sharply elevated levels of potassium, which can bring on cardiac arrest, as well as heightened creatinine levels that indicate impaired kidney function.
Navalny was arrested in January upon his return from Germany, where he had spent five months convalescing from a nerve agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin — an accusation Russian officials have rejected.
Navalny's arrest triggered the biggest protests seen across Russia in recent years. In February, a Moscow court ordered him to serve 2 ½ years in prison on a 2014 embezzlement conviction that the European Court of Human Rights deemed to be “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable”.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP and AP)