May 14, 2021
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has branded the United States an “unfriendly” nation, putting a new legal stamp on tensions with Washington in advance of high-level meetings with President Joe Biden’s administration.
Russian officials included the Czech Republic on the list alongside the United States, a pairing that points to last month’s dispute over an alleged spy scandal as the cause of the designation. Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek ordered Moscow to withdraw dozens of officials from the Russian Embassy in Prague, a crackdown that could force Russia to slash its spy presence at an embassy widely perceived as a regional hub for Russian intelligence operations.
“This is their twisted reading of the reality,” a Czech official told the Washington Examiner. “They don’t understand [that the reason] why we did that was a reaction to their malicious behavior. What they are trying to say or what they are thinking is that we did it because the Americans told us to do it. That’s why you see the two countries being designated as hostile.”
Kulhanek’s order was the third diplomatic volley in a controversy that erupted after Czech officials blamed Russia for a 2014 explosion that killed two civilians. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis expelled 18 Russian spies operating under diplomatic cover, and Russia countered by ordering 20 Czech officials to leave Russia. Babis’s government deemed that an improper overreaction, given that only a handful of Czech officials remained in the country, so his government slashed the far larger Russian presence by a comparable degree.
“The Czech Republic will be allowed to hire no more than 19 Russian nationals to work for its embassy, and the United States, not a single one,” Russian state media outlet TASS said in a short bulletin on the designations.
That announcement comes one day after Moscow announced that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the sidelines of the Arctic Council meeting next week in Iceland. That meeting could set the stage for Biden to meet with Putin in June.
Russia’s “unfriendly” designation coincided with a separate Russian move to freeze the Russian bank accounts of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S. government-backed outlet that has been designated as a foreign agent. Russian law defines a foreign agent as anyone who enjoys “even a minimal amount of funding from any foreign sources, governmental or private, and engage[s] in ‘political activity,’” as Human Rights Watch explained, saying that “political activity” covers “any attempt by an independent group to influence public policy, regardless of the group’s mandate.”
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly rejected Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova’s claim that the organization is “a mouthpiece for U.S. state propaganda,” as she put it Thursday.
“RFE/RL’s journalists in Russia are patriotic Russian nationals — not Americans,” Fly said. “They provide independent news and information so their fellow citizens do not ‘get used to untruth and live in lies,’ as one of these journalists recently put it.”
Likewise, Russian officials slapped the foreign agent label on a Russian-language website founded by journalists who quit their jobs at another company “after the appointment of a pro-Kremlin editor-in-chief sparked an exodus from their previous employer,” said the Moscow Times, which is partnered with the now-designated website. “The news website has vowed to keep alive Vedomosti’s tradition of independent and objective journalism.”
The media moves are part of a campaign to dominate the information space in Russia, according to analysts. “The goal is to suggest that any investigative journalism is backed by foreign money, performed by foreigners, and thus suspect,” No Yardstick’s Andras Toth-Czifra tweeted. “This fits into the larger trend of framing everything, from regional protests to smart voting or even elite dissent, as a national security issue.”
The parallel branding of the United States and Czech Republic sends a similar message of a foreign “conspiracy against Russia,” according to the Czech official, who expressed uncertainty about whether Russian officials believe themselves or are making these arguments for domestic consumption.
“It can be both,” the Czech official said. “You might have some people who believe this twisted narrative and others who use it; for how many of them is it a belief and for how many of them is it just a cynical calculus, that’s questions I don’t have an answer for.”