The world is on high alert after analysts studying Russia’s covert spies and military said the highly secretive nation hadn’t been this active since the Cold War.
The US is continuing to take a hard line approach to Russia with President Joe Biden kicking out 10 Russian diplomats earlier this week and announcing sanctions.
Mr Biden said the sanctions and the expulsion of the diplomats was punishment for the Kremlin’s interference in the US election, a massive cyber attack and other hostile activity.
In retaliation for that, Russia said on Friday it would expel US diplomats and sanction US officials in response while recommending the US envoy leave Russia “for consultations”.
Post-Cold War peak
Nations across Europe continue to express solidarity with the US as Russia ignites tension across the globe.
While Russia routinely shrugs off espionage allegations as part of an “anti-Russian campaign” orchestrated by the US or Britain, analysts say that covert Russian activities in Europe have hit a new post-Cold War peak.
Mark Galeotti, a professor at University College London who specialises in Russian affairs, said Russia was beginning to abandon any thoughts of peace and instead adopt a “wartime mindset”.
“The Russian intelligence community is now operating with a wartime mindset. They think they are in an existential struggle for Russia’s place in the world,” he told the AFP.
The 2014 uprising in Ukraine, that devolved into a war that continues to worsen, marked a turning point for Russia, Prof Galeotti said.
In recent weeks, Russia’s massing of troops on Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders, and on the Crimean peninsula it annexed seven years ago, have contributed to the sharp escalation in tensions.
US forces in Europe have raised their alert status in response, while NATO has issued warnings to Moscow.
NATO on Friday said reported plans by Moscow to block parts of the Black Sea would be “unjustified” and called on Moscow “to ensure free access to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov, and allow freedom of navigation”.
Russian state media reported that Moscow intends to close parts of the Black Sea to foreign military and official ships for six months, triggering concerns in the US and EU.
Moscow in a forceful response said top US officials including Attorney-General Merrick Garland, Biden’s chief domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, and FBI chief Christopher Wray would be banned from entering Russia.
Lists of officials banned from entry are usually kept secret, but Russia’s foreign ministry said it was revealing the names due to the “unprecedented nature” of the current tensions with Washington.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that Russia was responding to US sanctions in “a tit-for-tat manner” by asking 10 US diplomats in Russia to leave the country while also expelling five Polish diplomats in response to a similar move by Warsaw.
The US State Department later called Russia’s retaliation “escalatory and regrettable”.
“It is not in our interest to get into an escalatory cycle, but we reserve the right to respond to any Russian retaliation against the United States,” a spokesperson said in Washington.
Russian diplomats given 48 hours to leave the Czech Republic
It isn’t just the US taking action against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his highly secretive nation, the Czech Republic, Poland and Italy have all kicked out Russian diplomats this past month.
On Saturday, the Czech Republic announced it was expelling 18 Russian diplomats, identified by local intelligence as secret agents of the Russian SVR and GRU.
“Eighteen employees of the Russian embassy must leave our republic within 48 hours,” Czech Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek told reporters.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis said Czech authorities had “clear evidence” linking GRU officers to a 2014 explosion in a military ammunition warehouse, near the eastern Czech village of Vrbetice, that left two people dead.
“The explosion led to huge material damage and posed a serious threat to the lives of many local people, but above all it killed two citizens,” Mr Babis said.
The first blast occurred on October 16, 2014 at a warehouse with 58 tonnes of ammunition.
It was followed months later by another big blast at a nearby warehouse with 98 tonnes of ammunition.
On Thursday, Poland said it had expelled three Russian diplomats for “carrying out activities to the detriment” of Poland.
And earlier this month Italy expelled two Russian envoys after they said an Italian navy captain had been caught handing over classified documents to a Russian agent.
Tensions are also on the rise between Russia and Ukraine.
Faced with the largest deployment of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders since 2014, President Volodymyr Zelensky has requested more help from the West, and Western leaders urged Mr Putin to stop intimidating Ukraine.
– With Wires