Four countries including the Czech Republic on Tuesday expelled Russian intelligence officers accused of working under the guise of diplomats employed at embassies and consulates within their borders. Photo courtesy of Russian Embassy in the Czech Republic/Twitter
March 29 (UPI) -- Several European nations including Belgium and the Netherlands expelled Russian diplomats from their borders on Tuesday on accusations they were acting as intelligence officers.
The expulsions occurred as the relations between Russia and European nations further erode as Moscow continues its war against Kyiv.
Brussels announced during its Parliamentary Committee on Tuesday that it was expelling 21 Russians from their embassy in the capital and consulate in Antwerp.
"They have been identified for involvement in espionage and influence operations threatening national security," Sophie Wilmes, Belgian deputy prime minister, said in a statement.
Russia rebuked the charges, saying the accusations "are incompatible" with the functions of its employees.
The embassy said Minister of Foreign Affairs Director General Theodora Gentzis informed Ambassador Alexander Tokovinin of the expulsions.
"The ambassador rejected these unfounded accusations by stressing that this decision is a blow to Russian-Belgian relations and against traditions of bilateral collaboration," the embassy said in a statement. "It is clear that this unfriendly gesture by the Belgian side will not go unanswered."
Meanwhile, the Netherlands expelled 17 Russian diplomats, Ireland expelled four and the Czech Republic one.
Wopke Hoekstra, The Hague's minister of foreign affairs, accused the Russians of working as intelligence officers under a diplomatic cover.
The expulsions were conducted on information from Dutch intelligence and security officials who identified the Moscow officials as "at threat to the security" of the Netherlands, he said.
"This step was taken in coordination with other like-minded countries," he said in a statement. "This is a measure taken in the context of national security."
Russia also threatened to retaliate, while stating the move shows The Hague is not interested in maintaining diplomatic communication with Russia.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the expulsions by the Netherlands continues with its "destructive policy" of officials who have been "destroying bilateral relations with Russia" for years.
"This time the Dutch have outdone themselves in their effort to hit the Russian embassy harder," she said in a statement. "The responsibility for the implications of this arbitrary behavior lies in full with the Dutch authorities."
In Ireland, foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney similarly accused Russian diplomats within his border of conducting activities that are not in accordance with diplomats, and gave them 72 hours to leave the country.
Coveney added that it still believes that diplomatic channels between the two nations should remain open as it is in the interest of both citizenries.
"This channel of communication has been important in the context of conveying our strong views on the Russian Federation's war against Ukraine, which we regard as a serious breach of international law," he said in a statement.
Russia's embassy in the country also rejected the move as an "arbitrary, groundless decision."
"The embassy proceeds from the assumption that such a step by the Irish side will not go unanswered," it said.
In the Czech Republic, officials also gave a single Russian diplomat 72 hours to leave the European country after being declared persona non grata.
"Together with our allies, we are reducing the Russian intelligence presence in the [European Union]," it said in a tweet.
The actions by the European countries on Tuesday came a day after North Macedonia declared five Russians as persona non grata and Slovakia ordered three to leave the country.
Poland, the United States and several other countries had already issued similar decisions.
Ned Price, the U.S. State Department spokesman, applauded the European nations for their moves to remove Russian intelligence agents from within their borders.
"These actions are in response to these individuals' activities, which are in contravention of their diplomatic status, and the Russian Federation's aggression in Ukraine," he said. "We stand unified with our partners in protecting their national security from the Russian Federation's intelligence threats and against threats to democracy."