Built in the 1950s as a monument to the brotherly relations between Moscow and Prague, the vast and imposing Czech embassy in the heart of the Russian capital was designed for scores of staff. Today its five accredited diplomats could each have three floors of the complex to themselves.
The embassy’s headcount has been one of the biggest victims of a diplomatic war of tit-for-tat expulsions between Russia and western countries over the past fortnight in which 152 officials from Russian embassies abroad or foreign embassies in Moscow have lost their accreditation.
Most of the expulsions involve countries in eastern Europe with historic connections to Russia, from the Baltics to Bulgaria, underscoring both the dire state of the region’s ties with Moscow, and the difficulty in rebuilding relations for the diplomats who remain.
“This is not a storm in a teacup. What we are seeing here is the end of the era of Russia’s presence in its former Soviet satellites,” said Maxim Samorukov, fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“For decades, and even after the cold war, Moscow enjoyed a good presence and influence in these countries, thanks to the legacy of the Warsaw Pact,” he added. “This severely undermines Russia’s relations there. The loss is significant.”
Most of the expulsions since April 15 were triggered by Prague’s accusation that Russian spies were behind explosions at a Czech arms depot in 2014 that killed two people.
That prompted Prague to expel 18 Russian diplomats, and when Moscow expelled 20 people from the Czech embassy in response, Prague expelled 63 more Russians, demanding that the number of people working in both countries’ respective missions was equal.
In solidarity with Czechia, other countries such as Lithuania and Slovakia also kicked out Russian diplomats, sparking mirror responses from Moscow, while Bulgaria also expelled a Russian diplomat after probing Moscow’s links to explosions at its arms depots. Separately, the US and Russia expelled 10 of each other’s diplomats as part of new packages of sanctions against each other.
The impact will be most felt in central and eastern Europe. Former members of the USSR, such as Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Ukraine, and former Warsaw Pact allies such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, were seen by Moscow as important European partners after 1991.
Even since many of those states joined the EU and Nato, strong energy ties such as gas pipelines and long-term oil and gas supply contracts, cross-border industrial investments and large expatriate populations meant Russia had an oversized presence.
But Moscow’s influence has steadily eroded since relations with Brussels and Washington began to deteriorate following Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 and its 2014 annexation of Crimea. And this month’s tit-for-tat expulsions suggest neither side hopes for a reversal.
Andrius Tursa, central and eastern Europe analyst at Teneo, a risk consultancy, said the turmoil “will tarnish Russia’s reputation” in the region. “This might lead the governments across [central and eastern Europe] to further cut back their co-operation with Russia in strategic sectors and security-sensitive areas.”
“We want to support the Czechs. We believe that if they took such a drastic step, then they know what they are doing. So it was to hell with the Russians,” said an official from a country that expelled Russian diplomats. “And now we have this big building in Moscow, and no personnel!”
“Here in central Europe, the geopolitical question and the topic of where we belong is such a huge issue,” he added. “This is a call to the west, to America. Russia is a tool. Expelling Russian diplomats is a way of showing: ‘Look, we are with you’.”
This week, Russian state television broadcast what it said was a leaked list of nine countries that Moscow was set to name as “hostile”. In addition to the US and the UK, all the other seven were former members of the Warsaw Pact. Five were former members of the USSR.
“Prague’s and Sofia’s actions cause us irritation, regret, incomprehension, and a desire to see some changes in this schizophrenic position,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday.
“What the Czechs have been doing, the way the Bulgarians have joined in, and how the Baltic republics and others are including themselves in this notorious ‘solidarity’, we will not tolerate,” he added.
Legacies of the Warsaw Pact, the Russian embassies in cities such as Warsaw and Prague are sprawling palaces that dwarf many local government buildings.
Until the recent expulsions, the Russian embassy in Prague was the largest foreign mission in the city by headcount, and has long been accused by the Czech intelligence agency of harbouring a large espionage network.
“Czech diplomacy, and frankly the entire European and transatlantic environment was always nervous about the number of Russian diplomats in Prague and this was an opportunity to get rid of them,” said Michal Koran, president of the Global Arena Research Institute in Prague.
“These past weeks were about unmasking Russia,” he added. “The decisions taken will clear the table in terms of diplomatic relations, and I don’t see a viable agenda moving forward.”