Why Prague has struggled to get European support over Russian attack
Do small Central European countries matter less than big Western ones?
That’s one take on why the Kremlin’s poisoning of a Russian dissident in the United Kingdom in 2018 elicited a much stronger collective response than a recent report that Moscow was behind a 2014 explosion at a munitions depot in the Czech Republic that killed two people.
At the time of this writing, only five EU countries expelled Russian personnel from their embassies when Prague asked, compared to 18 (of 28 at the time), who did so at London’s bidding. This looks bad and seems to confirm the Russian hypothesis that smaller countries in Central Europe are second-class citizens who could, under the right circumstances, be separated from the rest of the EU.
The truth is more complicated. Rather than a symptom of inequality within the EU, the Czech case appears to be a tale of unfortunate timing and missed diplomatic opportunities.
When you ask matters as much as what and how. The Czechs publicized their finding when most European capitals had another Russia crisis on their minds. With tens of thousands of Russian troops seemingly poised to enter Ukraine, the focus across Europe was on talking Russia out of doing something foolish. This is not a criticism of the timing of the Czech ask — more on the subject below —but an observation: Their request to expel Russian personnel went against the perceived need elsewhere in Europe for intense diplomacy with Moscow.
To make things worse, some European capitals had just ejected Russian spies from their capitals. This was in response to the “SolarWinds” hack of U.S. government servers. Washington took the lead by imposing sanctions and expelling 10 people from the embassy in Washington; Poland followed by expelling three from Warsaw.
Poland would normally be among the first countries to respond positively to the Czech request, but there is a limit on the number of personnel one can and wants to expel. The unwritten rule is that one does not expel diplomats but spies acting under a diplomatic cover, and there are a finite number of those. Russia broke this rule by expelling actual diplomats from the Czech embassy in Moscow, but Europe should not follow the Russian example; two wrongs do not make a right.
In diplomacy, one is not always in control of the timing. With skill and persuasion, Prague could have neutralized the disadvantages and, in theory, elicited a stronger European response. That it did not do so comes down to the turmoil in Czech diplomacy at the time.
Prague is six months away from a general election. The Social Democrats who control the foreign ministry are down in the polls and on the cusp of ejection from the parliament. A failed intra-party coup in April led to the dismissal of the then-foreign minister, Tomáš Petříček, only five days before the Czechs charged Moscow with responsibility for the explosion.
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