Russia reveals diplomatic siege mentality with reactionary expulsions
Cold war atmosphere evident as patriotic fervour rejects West’s accusations of attack
Canada’s ambassador to Russia John Kur leaves the Russian foreign ministry headquarters in Moscow on March 30th, 2018. Photograph: Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty
Russia was battling a diplomatic siege this week as more than two dozen western countries rallied behind the United Kingdom to condemn the Kremlin for alleged involvement in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former spy and double agent, with a chemical weapon.
After the US and a group of European countries expelled almost 120 Russian envoys over the Skripal affair on Monday, Moscow retaliated in kind, showing large numbers of western diplomats the door.
Many ordinary Russians fear this is only the start of the trouble and their country is heading back into a prolonged cold war. And whether there is suspicion that their leaders had a hand in the reckless attack on Skripal or not, there is a widespread sense of grievance here that the UK has failed to provide solid evidence of the Kremlin’s guilt.
That sense of affront deepened on Monday as western governments, ignoring the unfolding catastrophe in Siberia where scores of people had been burnt alive in a fire at a shopping mall, powered ahead with the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats.
“Surely they could have waited?” said my elderly neighbour in Moscow. “Don’t they understand we’re enduring a national tragedy here?”
As might be expected, Russian state television, the main source of news for the overwhelming majority of the population, has echoed the Kremlin’s line throughout the Skripal crisis, claiming the “incident in Salisbury” was a “provocation” designed to weaken a resurgent Russia.
Defiant and bellicose
As western governments began expelling Russian diplomats this week, the tone of TV hosts and studio audiences grew yet more defiant and bellicose.
“There’s a feeling not just of war, but of a crusade” Konstantin Blokhin, an expert at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, told the Rossiya 1 channel’s popular Vremya Pokazhet (Time Will Tell) show on Tuesday. A coalition between the US and European states was consolidating on “the back of Russophobia”, he said.
“Has London got what it wanted? Yes,” said Timur Siraziev, a Rossiya 1 journalist. “Unfortunately, this is only the beginning. It will get much worse for us . . . They don’t want to stop.”
TV commentators pointed out that not all Europe was lost. Only 14 of the European Union’s 28 member states had at that point ganged up against Russia, although by the week’s end that figure had risen to 19. Christian Orthodox Greece, for one, had not kicked out any envoys.
There were bitter words for Donald Trump, the US president who, just one week after defying his advisers by congratulating Vladimir Putin on his election victory, had “gone over to the anti-Russian camp” to expel 60 envoys and close the Russian consulate in Seattle.
As the studio discussion grew more heated, a stream of patriotic comments from viewers at home floated across the TV screen: “Russia will not be beaten”, “All countries are turning against Russia, poor Mother Russia” and “Let’s shut all the embassies. There would be fewer traffic jams!”
Envoys thrown out
Russia expelled 60 US diplomats on Thursday and ordered the closure of the US consulate in Saint Petersburg in retaliation for a similar move by Washington.
Extending the retaliatory measures on Friday, the Kremlin turned its guns on Europe, throwing out envoys from 21 European countries – including Ireland – as well as Australia and Canada. It also gave the UK one month to reduce its diplomatic mission in Russia to match the number of Russian diplomatic staff in Britain.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Russian parliament, said the expulsion of US and European diplomats was a logical response to the “hysteria” over the Skripal affair. Escalating international tension created serious threats for the whole world, he warned.
The diplomatic storm over the Skripal poisoning would bolster Russian’s support for Vladimir Putin, said Andrei Okara, director of the Centre for East European Research in Moscow, “The idea that Russia is a besieged fortress is one of the central planks of Putin’s popularity.”