Dublin cleaving closely to EU middle ground on Russia

Irish slow response to Salisbury attack dictated by interests of other EU states

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that the Irish government is to run a security assessment over Russian diplomats based in Ireland following the UK's decision to expel 23 Russian officials in the wake of the Salisbury attack. Video: EU Council

 

It’s only eight years since Mary McAleese became the first Irish president to meet a Russian counterpart in the Kremlin, but her visit already belongs to a different era. Reading back over the speeches McAleese gave in Moscow and St Petersburg on that visit, in September 2010, it’s striking to recall the optimism and warmth that marked the bilateral relationship around then. After a relaxed meeting with then president Dimitri Medvedev, where they talked hurling and a possible visit to Ireland by Medvedev, McAleese spoke of the growing trade between the two countries and remarked on the “shared values” between Russia and the European Union. Over the next four years, Irish exports to Russia would jump almost fivefold.

Ireland expelled a Russian diplomat after it emerged the identities of six Irish citizens were stolen for the manufacture of forged Irish passports

Connections between the two countries had been given new impetus by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and by 2010, with the oil-fuelled Russian economy booming and the comparatively liberal Medvedev having replaced Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, Ireland, like much of Europe, saw an opportunity to draw Moscow closer to the western consensus.

In Vienna the previous April, Medvedev and then US president Barack Obama had signed a new non-proliferation treaty – perhaps the apogee of Obama’s doomed “reset” in relations between the two countries, and a sign of how western capitals were enthusiastically cultivating Medvedev in the forlorn hope that he could build a power base of his own and emerge from the shadow of the man who had installed him in office.

Putin’s return

Things turned sour quickly after that. A few months after McAleese’s visit, Ireland expelled a Russian diplomat after it emerged the identities of six Irish citizens were stolen for the manufacture of forged Irish passports used by a Russian spy ring in the United States (the spy-swap that brought the agents back to Russia included the transfer to the UK of double-agent Sergei Skripal, whose poisoning last week set off an international incident).

File photograph of Sergei Skripal at a hearing at the Moscow military district court, Russia, in August 2006. File photograph: Kommersant/Yuri Senatorov via Reuters
File photograph of Sergei Skripal at a hearing at the Moscow military district court, Russia, in August 2006. File photograph: Kommersant/Yuri Senatorov via Reuters

In September 2011, after Russian presidential terms were extended from four to six years, Putin announced he would seek a third term as president, which he duly won the following year. At home, Putin’s return to the Kremlin brought with it stricter social controls – his party initiated anti-LGBT legislation and his government oversaw crackdowns on independent media – while overseas Moscow began to throw its weight around more, particularly in the ex-Soviet states whose loss in the early 1990s Putin had long mourned.

Security service concerns about Russia’s use of Ireland as a spy base have resurfaced in the pages of the Sunday Times

Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its support for an insurgency in eastern Ukraine, resulted in heavy western sanctions which, combined with the collapse in the price of oil from 2014, have left the country’s economy in a dire state. From Ireland’s perspective, much of the progress McAleese hailed in 2010 has been reversed; for example, Irish agricultural exports to Russia almost halved between 2014 and 2016 as pork, dairy and poultry were banned by Russia as part of its tit-for-tat response to the western sanctions.

Political ties are in an even worse state. In a private briefing paper prepared in advance of the 2016 general election, officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs noted that “relations between Russia and the EU are in a state of reciprocal mistrust and limited co-operation, based increasingly on differences over values and geopolitics, rather than on mutual economic and political interests”.

Concerns over Moscow

The department did not mention Russia in its statement of solidarity with the UK over the Salisbury nerve agent attack, but it has also been silent on Putin’s election victory last week – an event that hasn’t merited as much as a pro forma press release from the department. In contrast, the fourth anniversary of the Crimea annexation was marked last week by a statement in which Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney reiterated Ireland’s “unwavering support” for “the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Ukraine. In the background, meanwhile, security service concerns about Russia’s use of Ireland as a spy base have resurfaced in the pages of the Sunday Times, which reported that a large extension to the Russian embassy in Rathgar had raised eyebrows within the Special Branch (the embassy denies the claims).

Forensic teams work at an address in Gillingham, Dorset, as they remove a recovery truck used following the Salisbury nerve agent attack. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Forensic teams work at an address in Gillingham, Dorset, as they remove a recovery truck used following the Salisbury nerve agent attack earlier in March. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

As on most major foreign policy issues, Dublin cleaves closely to the EU middle ground on Russia. That means it agrees with the post-Crimea sanctions, wants to support Ukraine and other states on Russia’s western doorstep, believes the EU must make itself more resilient in security, trade and energy and favours “selective engagement” with Moscow on specific issues.

The problem is that by insisting on going as far but no further than the EU, Dublin’s position is subject to the vagaries of the bloc’s decision-making procedures. That means that, until a strong EU position emerged in the early hours of Friday morning, Dublin pulled its punches on Russian culpability for the Salisbury attack – not because it has its own doubts, but because Greece and Italy baulked at pointing the finger.

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