Saturday

4th Feb 2023

Czech leader downplays Russian bomb attack

  • Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš

The Czech government has downplayed the significance of Russia's lethal attack on a Czech weapons depot in 2014, but further retaliatory measures, including at EU level, could follow.

"It was not an act of state terrorism. [Russian] agents attacked the goods of a Bulgarian arms dealer, who probably sold them to parties fighting against Russia. The ammunition was to explode along the way [to the warehouse]," Czech prime minister and business tycoon Andrej Babiš said on TV on Monday (19 April).

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"But it is, of course, unacceptable that they carried out this operation here, which they messed up," he added.

He spoke following a government meeting in which he shared classified evidence from a recently completed investigation into the incident seven years ago, which killed two Czech citizens.

The pro-Russian Czech president, Miloš Zeman, a political ally of Babiš, has said nothing.

Earlier the same day, speaking at an EU foreign affairs ministers' video-conference, the Czech Republic's acting foreign minister, Jan Hamáček, did brief his peers on the attack.

He asked for EU "solidarity", which was duly expressed in two brief statements, one by EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell and a second one by a European Commission spokesman.

But according to diplomatic sources, Hamáček did not ask for any concrete actions, such as coordinated expulsions of Russian diplomats by other EU countries.

"They called for solidarity in general, not for specific measures", an EU diplomat told EUobserver.

When asked why the EU reaction had been so muted for now, the diplomat added: "Because common sense is not common practice [in Europe]".

Prague has so far expelled 18 Russian diplomats over the affair, prompting Russia to expel 20 Czech ones in revenge.

But the actions were disproportionate, given that Russia had over 120 diplomats in the Czech Republic, while the Russian move left just a handful of Czech ones in Moscow.

And for some commentators, Babiš and Hamáček's manoeuvring on Monday was because they were taken aback by Russia's firm response.

"It was an unexpected and pleasant surprise that they decided to do so [expel the 18 Russians]. And now it seems as if they are afraid of their [Russia's] vigorous approach," Petr Kolář, the Czech Republic's former ambassador to the US, told Czech media on Monday.

"I think that the way we are approaching this now embarrasses not only me and some colleagues, but also allies abroad. I think they [EU and Nato allies] expected a much more emphatic continuation of how we started," he added.

"The Czech public must also be confused," Kolář said.

The Czech side is to brief Nato ambassadors at a meeting of the allies' North Atlantic Council on Tuesday.

And for one EU diplomat, further reactions, both in the Czech Republic and in the West, could still follow.

"I have a feeling that this is just the beginning," the diplomat said.

For its part, the foreign policy committee of the Czech senate asked the Czech government, also on Monday, to reduce the number of Russian diplomats in the country to just one - the Russian ambassador himself.

The Czech trade minister, Karel Havlíček, also indicated that Russian firm Rosatom will be excluded from a tender to build a nuclear power plant.

But for some Western allies, the 2014 incident should be treated at least as gravely as Russia's attempt to assassinate a former Russian spy in the UK in 2018, when Europe and the US collectively expelled over 300 Russian diplomats.

The Czech explosion "was a direct attack on a Nato-member country", Tom Tugendhat, a British MP who chairs the UK parliament's foreign affairs committee, told the Sky News broadcaster over the weekend.

"If this was not an act of war, then I have trouble understanding what should be considered as one," he added.

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