Russian expulsions: a gesture of solidarity

Western states have baulked so far at going after Russia’s leaders where it hurts: in their pockets

The coordinated mass expulsion of Russian diplomats by at least 15 countries, including Ireland, is an important gesture of revulsion following the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain earlier this month. The largest group of affected intelligence and diplomatic officers is in the United States, but the list of participating countries is sufficiently wide to make the move a powerful signal of international solidarity.

The sudden loss of more than 100 diplomats in the field will slow Russia’s activities in each of these countries, but few believe that it will prove a long-term setback to Moscow’s intelligence-gathering work in Europe and the US. Rather, the value of the initiative is largely symbolic. It shows that the European Union, often maligned for its inability to arrive at common positions on big foreign policy questions, was capable of overcoming resistance from a number of member states, including Greece, to take action on a threat facing the entire continent. It was right to say Russian involvement was highly likely. Even if rogue Russian agents carried out the attack, responsibility for safeguarding Soviet-era chemical weapons ultimately falls on the Kremlin.

The relatively strong measures taken by Washington are more striking given that President Donald Trump has taken a remarkably soft line on Russia in general. Just last week, Trump congratulated Vladimir Putin, on his reelection without mentioning Russia’s apparent use of a military-grade chemical weapon in Salisbury.

Welcome though they are, however, the expulsions will not necessarily hurt the Putin regime. Indeed they could even work to the Kremlin’s advantage. In almost two decades in power, Putin has actively sought out conflict with the West as a means of buttressing his own domestic support. The social contract underpinning Putin’s early years in office was that voters would tolerate the Kremlin’s authoritarianism and a closing of the space for public debate in exchange for rising incomes. For many years, Putin delivered on his side of the bargain. But the crippling effect of western sanctions, combined with the collapse of oil prices from 2014, have chipped away at Putin’s legitimacy. To retrieve it the Kremlin has looked abroad, projecting strength in places such as Syria and Ukraine while driving home the message that Russia is a bulwark against a broken, decadent west. In that context, the Russian portrayal of a hostile western bloc ganging up on Moscow will play well in Putin’s nationalist base.


So far, western states have baulked at going after Russia’s leaders where it hurts: in their pockets. Until London and other capitals take meaningful steps to clamp down on the assets of Russian kleptocrats on their own soil, and accept the economic hit that would entail, Moscow will continue to believe it can act with impunity.