Russia has little to fear from diplomatic expulsions
Tougher action by international powers will be needed to really worry the Kremlin
Russia’s ambassador to Ireland, Yury Filatov, pictured leaving the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, as the Government confirmed it would expel a Russian diplomat. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
Ever since the British government first accused Russia of the Skripals poisoning, Moscow has been complaining about the “presumption of guilt” applied to it by western countries.
Russia shouldn’t protest too much as its credibility has been destroyed over the last four years by three important events.
First, president Vladimir Putin first publicly denied, and then publicly confirmed that there were Russian regular troops involved in the early stages of the Crimea takeover in spring 2014.
Second, Russia’s persistent and extraordinary effort to deny any responsibility for shooting down the Malaysian passenger plane over Ukraine in July 2014, even when there was clear evidence to the contrary.
And third, Russia’s denial of any involvement in Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning, even though there was a clearly traceable radioactive trail back to Russia and identified culprits, one of whom was elected to the Russian parliament.
The unprecedented scale of this week’s expulsions would probably not have been possible, however, in the absence of some country-specific reasons.
First, Germany has openly cited hacker attacks on its parliament as a background reason for the expulsion, and there are other grievances against Russia such as its stoking of anti-immigrant tensions over the alleged rape of an Russian-speaking girl in Berlin by Muslim immigrants, eventually proven to be false. And French president Emmanuel Macron seems to be welcoming the opportunity to act tough to establish his foreign policy credentials. With Germany and France united in their resolve to push against Russia, it was inevitable that the rest of the EU would follow suit.
The US was already preparing more sanctions against Russia as part of the Russian sanctions Bill passed by the Congress last year, so the White House welcomed the opportunity offered by the Skripal case for further escalation. The US expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats – more than all other nations combined – made it easier for other countries such as Canada and Australia to follow suit.
How will Russia react? The expulsions themselves will be easy to parry by the expulsion of western diplomats from Russia. But tougher action will be needed to really worry the Kremlin.
It would be a mistake to reduce Russia’s problem to one man in the Kremlin
For example, there could be a lot more pressure on Germany to cancel the flagship Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, though Berlin will resist that given significant economic benefits to it from that project. The talk about going after Russian oligarchs in the UK and beyond is unlikely to worry Putin much as he would actually prefer if oligarchs spent more of their money in Russia. But other financial sanctions, already envisioned in the US sanctions Bill, would be extremely painful for Russia.
However, would Iran-style sanctions be workable against such a large and important country as Russia? As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it could paralyse the working of the UN, making the introduction of new sanction against Iran or North Korea impossible. Moscow could also increase its military and economic co-operation with Iran, for example by supplying it with more advanced air defence systems making possible US interventions more risky. And it can break the economic embargo on North Korea and resist any further tightening of UN sanctions on that country.
On a more strategic level, the Kremlin could abandon key arms control treaties such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty prohibiting deployment of such land-based missiles. It could continue to build up its military around the Baltic states, escalate its involvement in Syria, or unfreeze the conflict in the Donbas. All these scenarios have a potential for a open conflict with the US and Nato.
The rhetoric coming from western politicians such as Boris Johnson increasingly points to their belief in a regime change in Russia as the only possible resolution to the current impasse in relations. However, it’s seen very differently in Russia, with Putin just winning another term with the biggest vote ever.
A related mistake would be to reduce Russia’s problem to one man in the Kremlin, rather than appreciate the wider structural factors driving Russian foreign policy such as its insecurity over Nato and the EU’s expansion, Russia’s complex identity and the legacy of Soviet collapse.
This raises deeper questions about European security. Can there be a sustainable long-term security in Europe in which Russia is not fully invested? How to deal with a country that doesn’t share western liberal values? What implications does the rise of western illiberal populism have for relations with Russia? Can it really be reduced to Russian meddling in the western democracy?
These questions go beyond the diplomatic expulsions over the Skripal affair. And at the moment there are no clear answers to them.
Alexander Titov is a lecturer in modern European history at Queen’s University Belfast