Monday

23rd May 2022

EU in talks on further Russia expulsions

  • EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell (c) in Moscow in February (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Talks are ongoing among EU capitals on further expulsions of Russian diplomats in solidarity with the Czech Republic.

"We are ready to take action, also at EU-level as appropriate, and discussions on this continue among member states," an EU official told EUobserver on Sunday (25 April).

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The EU embassy in Moscow was helping to coordinate decision-making, a second EU source said.

"Hundreds of Russian [intelligence] agents are accredited in the EU as diplomats and operate also here in Brussels. Will EU leaders and the EEAS get serious, show some guts, and expel at least a couple of them?", a senior EU diplomat also said, referring to the European External Action Service (EEAS).

The Baltic states and Slovakia have led the way, expelling seven Russians in total last week.

"For us, EU solidarity matters," Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said on Friday, after marking out two Russians in Vilnius as persona non grata.

Poland is expected to follow suit this week, EU diplomatic sources said.

Bulgaria and Romania might also follow, they added.

And the UK was helping Czech diplomats make the case to allies that Russian spies blew up an ammunitions warehouse in the Czech town of Vrbětice in 2014, just as they tried to poison a former Russian spy in England in 2018.

When asked if the UK will expel any Russians, a British official told this website on Sunday: "We will continue to coordinate our response to Russia's hostile actions with a wide range of international partners".

But London had already taken steps by summoning the Russian ambassador to complain, the official noted.

And many western European allies were, in general, more "reluctant" to take robust action, an EU diplomat said.

The Czech Republic itself has ordered out 81 Russian diplomats and staff over the affair, while Russia, which denies wrongdoing, is expelling 110 Czech ones in retaliation.

The Czech foreign minister and several Czech politicians have also called for EU and Nato solidarity.

But the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, and its pro-Russian president, Miloš Zeman, have blunted Prague's diplomacy.

Babiš initially downplayed the attack, which killed two Czechs, as a Russian botch-job targeting a Bulgarian arms dealer.

Zeman, on Sunday, claimed the Czech investigation was inconclusive.

"We are working with two investigative theories - the first, original one, that there was an explosion resulting from inexpert handling of explosives, and the second that it was an operation of a foreign intelligence service," he said on TV.

"I take both of these theories seriously," he said.

"Zeman now openly stands on the side of Russia and has become its advocate," Pavel Fischer, a senior Czech MP, told the Reuters news agency.

But Zeman aside, the Czech foreign ministry might also have been hampered by its own unprofessionalism, one expert said.

When Russia tried to assassinate former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, in 2018, Nato and EU countries expelled over 100 Russian diplomats in support.

But this came after "briefings and presentations by the Brits for their allies about the case, presenting evidence for diplomats," according to Jakub Janda, the director of European Values, a think-tank in Prague.

"It seems almost certain the Czech government did nothing like that," Janda told EUobserver.

"There's a threat other [EU] countries will be reached by the Kremlin's ... lies about the [Vrbětice] incident, faster than by the Czech government's feeble communications," he said.

Firm message?

Meanwhile, whatever happens next, Russia's Vrbětice and Salisbury attacks were not isolated incidents.

Bulgaria, Germany, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the US have also expelled Russian diplomats in recent months, involving other espionage cases.

And the EU has blacklisted Kremlin officials for using chemical weapons to assassinate people.

"I still get angry about Salisbury because I know how near we came to very significant casualties ... You imagine what would have happened if a kid had come across that material and spread it around," Richard Moore, the head of British intelligence service MI6, told The Sunday Times, referring to Novichok, a Russian chemical weapon used in the 2018 attack.

Referring also to Vrbětice and to Russia's military aggression in Ukraine, Moore said Russia's "pattern of reckless behaviour" was MI6's top security concern.

"It is why we have coordinated so closely with our allies to make sure we are getting firm messages back to [Russian] president [Vladimir] Putin," Moore said.

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