Slovakia on Thursday announced it was expelling three Russian diplomats, giving them a week to leave the country, saying it was acting in solidarity with neighbouring Czech Republic whose diplomatic rift with Moscow is escalating.
“Three representatives of the Russian diplomatic mission must end their activities in Slovakia and must leave the country within seven days,” Prime Minister Eduard Heger said in a televised briefing, adding Slovakia made its decision "following recent events in the Czech Republic and after having thoroughly evaluated information of our intelligence services that closely cooperate with the intelligence services of our allies".
Earlier Thursday, the Czech Republic ordered Russia to remove most of its remaining diplomatic staff from the country, after already having expelled 18 Russian staff over the weekend, identifying them as intelligence officers.
According to Prague, two Russian spies accused of a nerve agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 were also behind an explosion at a Czech ammunition depot in 2014 that killed two people.
Russia has denied the Czech accusations and on Sunday ordered out 20 Czech staff in retaliation.
The Czech government said it was also slapping a ceiling on the Russian embassy workforce, giving Russia until the end of May to reduce their numbers to the same level as those of the Czech embassy in Moscow.
Prague currently has a total of 24 embassy staff in Russia, which in turn has 94 staff in Prague.
Czechs say their embassy paralysed
The Czechs say the loss of the 20 staff has effectively paralysed the functioning of their Moscow embassy, smaller than the Russian mission in Prague.
The Russian embassy is by far the largest foreign mission in Prague, an overhang since the pre-1989 communist era, and about double the US Embassy.
The Czech counterintelligence service has repeatedly said that the mission served as a base for intelligence work and its size made it difficult to reduce these activities.
The two suspects named by Prague in connection with the 2014 ammunition depot explosion, 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.
Tensions over Ukraine
The European Union voiced support to Prague on Wednesday and NATO followed suit in a statement Thursday, expressing “deep concern over the destabilising actions Russia continues to carry out across the Euro-Atlantic area".
Fears have been mounting after tens of thousands of Russian troops conducted military drills near Ukraine just as fighting flared up in the east of Ukraine between government troops and pro-Moscow separatists.
The United States and NATO have said that the Russian buildup was the largest since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and threw its support behind separatists in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland called Donbas.
Russia on Thursday declared the military drills to be over, but said the troops should leave their weapons behind in western Russia for another exercise later this year.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, REUTERS)