Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will expel Russian diplomats in solidarity with the Czech Republic, the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs said on Friday.
Foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis announced the move during a press conference on Friday, Lithuanian national broadcaster LRT reported.
"My Latvian and Estonian colleagues have each expelled one [embassy] employee that undertook espionage activities," Landsbergis said.
Lithuania will expel two Russian diplomats, he said without disclosing names. "They both had a diplomatic rank," he added.
The Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote on Twitter that Estonia will expel one diplomat.
Today Estonia expelled a #Russian diplomat in solidarity with the #Czech Republic following the 2014 explosion in #Vrbetice. Such Russia's action violates international law, undermines European security & stability and is unacceptable.— Estonian MFA (@MFAestonia) April 23, 2021
Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics also confirmed Latvia was making the same move. "Latvia will not tolerate subversive activities on its soil or that of its partners and allies," he wrote.
In solidarity with our Czech allies and due to the violations of Vienna Convention #Latvia has decided to expel a Russian diplomat. Latvia will not tolerate subversive activities on its soil or that of its partners and allies— Edgars Rinkēvičs (@edgarsrinkevics) April 23, 2021
The Czech ambassador to Estonia David Kral expressed his thanks and said: "Let me express our utmost gratitude. We shall never forget this brave move of yours in this difficult situation!"
Thank you, dear friends! As the official representative of the Czech Republic to the Republic of Estonia , let me express our utmost gratitude. We shall never forget this brave move of yours in this difficult situation!— David Kral (@Davidkral1973) April 23, 2021
Reacting to the news, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Friday that Russia will retaliate for the expulsion of its diplomats from the Baltic states.
Zakharova told journalists: "The authorities of these countries can have no doubts about our response. Their diplomats can already start planning who among them will have to pack their things."
This is not the first time the Baltic states have acted in solidarity in recent months. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have consistently applied sanctions to Belarusian officials in unison and last week the three foreign ministers visited Kyiv together to show support for Ukraine while Russian troops gathered on the country's eastern border.
On Saturday, Czech authorities expelled 18 Russian diplomats accusing them of being secret agents with ties to a 2014 explosion at a munitions depot that killed two people. They also alleged that two Russian spies wanted over the 2018 poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in England were involved in the blast.
Moscow denied the allegations and responded by expelling 20 Czech diplomatic staff of a total of 32. The Czech government on Thursday ordered Russia to remove 63 diplomatic staff from Prague by the end of May, to create an equal number of staff in both embassies.
Czech foreign minister Jakub Kulhanek said: "I do not want to needlessly escalate ... but the Czech Republic is a self-confident country and will act as such. This is not aimed against Russians or the Russian nation, but a reaction to activities of Russian secret services on our territory."
The Czech counterintelligence service has repeatedly warned that the Russian Embassy is being used as a base for undercover spies.
Slovakia has also expelled three diplomats in solidarity with the Czech Republic, which has called on NATO and EU allies to act in solidarity.
Estonia summons Russian ambassador
The Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Friday it had summoned the Ambassador of the Russian Federation Aleksander Petrov and made a strong protest in relation to information received from the Czech Republic that the explosion in an ammunition warehouse in Vrbetice in 2014 was organized by the Russian military intelligence.
"Russia has committed a grave violation of international law on the territory of a European Union and NATO member state, undermining the sovereignty of the Czech Republic and claiming the lives of two people," a statement from the ministry said. "Actions of this kind are harmful to the security and stability of Europe and are unacceptable."
Expulsion of Russian diplomat to have destructive consequences
The Russian Embassy in Tallinn on Friday called the expulsion of a Russian diplomat from Estonia "an unfriendly and unwarranted step" and said it "will have destructive consequences for bilateral relations".
"We regard the decision made by the Estonian side for the sake of the NATO and EU 'solidarity' with the Czech Republic to declare a Russian embassy employee persona non grata as an unfriendly and absolutely groundless action, the destructive consequences of which for our bilateral relations will be felt for a long time to come," the embassy said in a statement published on Facebook.
Estonia's decision to expel a Russian diplomat "can only negate any efforts to bring the Russian-Estonian relations to a level that is much more in line with the interests of the peoples of our countries," it said.
❗ STATEMENT BY THE RUSSIAN EMBASSY IN ESTONIA ▪️ We regard the decision made by the Estonian side for the sake of the...Posted by Посольство России в Эстонии / Russian Embassy in Estonia on Friday, 23 April 2021
Editor's note: This article has been updated to add comments by the Russian embassy in Estonia.
Editor: Helen Wright