There is a sense that Russia has reached the end of its patience over provocations and condescending sanctions imposed by the collective West.
The incendiary row between the Czech Republic, the European Union, and Russia flared last week and looked to be spinning out of control. Latest developments, however, suggest that a more sober view may prevail to tamp down unnecessary tensions. Russia’s stern response seems to have forced a “reality-Czech”.
Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek has indicated his government is no longer insisting on further expulsions of Russian diplomatic staff from Prague. This may be the first step toward calming a torrid spat with Moscow.
The row blew up last weekend when the Czechs announced they were expelling 18 Russian diplomats. The move was said to be in response to a Czech police investigation which claimed to have found evidence implicating Russian military agents as being responsible for an explosion at an ammo depot in October 2014. The massive blast at a storage site near the village of Vrbetice on the border with Slovakia killed two male employees.
Russia promptly rejected Prague’s accusation, calling it an absurd fabrication. Moscow then announced the expulsion of 20 Czech diplomats.
Subsequently, the Czechs protested against what they called Russia’s harsh “over-reaction” and they called on other member states of the European Union and the NATO alliance to show solidarity by also ordering Russian diplomats to leave their territories.
The whole affair was teetering on an escalation of diplomatic sanctions and counter-sanctions. It came amid already-heightened tensions over the conflict in Ukraine as well as a military build-up by NATO forces in the Black Sea where Russia was holding major war drills. In recent weeks, the United States and European allies have ejected Russian diplomats to which Moscow has responded swiftly by expelling Western counterparts. As usual, the West decries Russia’s “over-reaction” as if expecting Moscow to take their provocations sitting down.
Significantly, too, the American ambassador to Russia returned to Washington this week for consultations with the Biden administration. Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. also returned in previous weeks after a series of provocative moves by Washington.
The entire geopolitical situation has become fraught. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev commented this week that the danger of war has not been as close since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union. Medvedev also appealed for a willingness to de-escalate tensions on a mutual, reasonable basis, and for the West to “reject the language of ultimatums” that only leads to disaster.
We may see such a willingness to avert disaster in the latest Czech move to step back from its demand for Moscow to withdraw dozens more of its diplomatic staff from Prague.
As with earlier sanctions, Moscow has reciprocated robustly in a way that demonstrates to the U.S. and its European allies that it will not tolerate provocations. This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in his state-of-the-nation annual address that Moscow would not accept any crossing of red lines by adversaries. There is a sense that Russia has reached the end of its patience over provocations and condescending sanctions imposed unilaterally by the collective West.
The latest row between the Czech Republic and Russia has the hallmarks of an orchestrated campaign to intensify harassment. The pattern is all-too-familiar. Baseless accusations are leveled by one party, and then other parties follow up with further recriminations in a show of “solidarity”. Russia’s rapid slap-down of the accusations followed by reciprocal sanctions demonstrates that Moscow will not allow the reckless charade to escalate. That’s not just the righteous thing to do; it also may prevent the situation from cascading into a full-blown military confrontation because the antagonizers are given pause by Russia’s resoluteness. In short, a bully only gets the message when he gets a punch in the face. “Now, do you want to talk?”
In any case, what of the Czech allegations? There are several giveaways of fabrication that Prague may not be aware of. First, the Czech authorities have refused to provide their evidence for Moscow to examine the purportedly incriminating information concerning the 2014 explosion. This is the same obscure lack of due process which we have seen in other allegations of malign activity, including the alleged Russian military presence in Eastern Ukraine, the alleged Russian complicity in the shoot-down of the Malaysian civilian airliner in 2014, and the alleged Kremlin plots to poison the Skripals in England in 2018 as well as to assassinate the blogger-conman Alexei Navalny.
The West seems to think its accusations alone are sufficient to “convict” Russia of wrongdoing. That presumption only works if it is based on a premise of Russophobia. Otherwise, it is a laughable travesty.
Another indicator of fabrication is the source of Czech information on the 2014 incident. Previously, Czech investigators had concluded that the deadly blast was an industrial accident. What changed was their receipt of new information apparently a few months ago. The source of that new information can be gleaned from media reports as Bellingcat, the British media group which functions as a laundromat for British military intelligence. This so-called independent research group has peddled disinformation concerning chemical weapons in Syria to frame up the Syrian government, as well as the 2014 Malaysian airliner disaster to frame up Russia, and the poison sagas of the Skripals and Navalny.
Most bizarrely, the Bellingcat-MI6 “sleuths” informed the Czechs that the two alleged Russian agents accused of the Skripal plot were also involved in the 2014 explosions. That’s too far-fetched to be taken seriously. Indeed, it is risible.
It is notable how London was particularly quick to amplify the Czech issue. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab declared Prague had “exposed the lengths that the Russian intelligence services will go to in their attempts to conduct dangerous and malign operations in Europe”.
This tells us that the diplomatic flare-up between Prague and Moscow was orchestrated. And the intention was for the row to blow up into a Europe-wide crisis that would compound the already critical tensions between the West and Russia.
Russia’s firm and rational response is a reality-check for those who might be dragged into a senseless and dangerous confrontation. But this spiral has to stop definitively. Each time there is an episode, there is always a risk that it may spiral out of control and into catastrophe. The only way forward is for mutual dialogue based on respect and equality, devoid of anti-Russian prejudice and paranoia. Russia will not let such a destructive mentality prevail.