In what appeared to be a coordinated action to tackle Russian espionage, at least four European allies expelled a total of dozens of Russian diplomats on Tuesday.
The expulsions come against a backdrop of relations between Russia and the West that have been plunged into a deep freeze following Moscows invasion of Ukraine.
The Netherlands said it was expelling 17 Russians who it described as intelligence officers masquerading as diplomats. Belgium said it was ejecting 21 Russians. The Czech Republic gave one Russian diplomat 72 hours to leave the country. Ireland told four senior Russian officials to leave the country because of activities deemed not in accordance with international standards of diplomatic behaviour."
Together with our allies, we are reducing the Russian intelligence presence in the EU, the Czech Foreign Ministry said.
Poland last week expelled 45 Russians whom the government identified as intelligence officers using their diplomatic status as cover to operate in the country.
The Netherlands said it took its decision in consultation with a number of like-minded countries, citing similar expulsions by the United States, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Montenegro.
The cabinet has decided to do this because of the threat to national security posed by this group, the Dutch ministry said in a statement. The intelligence threat against the Netherlands remains high. The current attitude of Russia in a broader sense makes the presence of these intelligence officers undesirable. The deportation is a measure taken in the context of national security.
Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said he was prepared for a retaliation from Moscow.
Experience shows that Russia does not leave these kinds of measures unanswered," he said. "We cannot speculate about that, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is prepared for various scenarios that may arise in the near future.
That was demonstrated earlier Tuesday, when Russia said it expelled a total of 10 diplomats from the three Baltic EU states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in retaliation for those countries expelling Russian diplomats earlier this month.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was cancelling the accreditation of four Lithuanian diplomats, three Latvians and three Estonians and they would be required to leave the country. That corresponds to the number of Russian diplomats each country previously expelled.
On March 18, the three Baltic countries ordered the expulsion of 10 Russian embassy staff members in a coordinated action taken in solidarity with Ukraine.Moscow called that move provocative and entirely baseless and that it had summoned the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian ambassadors in Moscow for an official protest.