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Expelling Russian diplomats: tokenism in Europe; petulance in Washington

US expulsion looks like a delayed reaction to Russia’s huge expulsion of US diplomats last July

Before discussing the decision of the Western powers to expel Russian diplomats, it is necessary re-emphasise the total lack of logic behind the decision.

Though the decision is being presented in the media as an expulsion of “Russian spies”, it is also being linked to the Skripal case.

The Skripal case however is still ongoing.  The British police investigation is still underway.  No suspect has been named and all the indications are that the British police still do not know how Sergey and Yulia Skripal were poisoned or who poisoned them.

The OPCW has only recently become involved in the case, and only because the Russians insisted on it.

The OPCW has not yet identified the chemical which was used to poison Sergey and Yulia Skripal.  Supposedly identification by the OPCW of the chemical is weeks away.

Meanwhile people like Craig Murray and John Helmer have pointed out that evidence submitted by the British authorities to the High Court suggests that the identification by Porton Down scientists of the chemical used to poison Sergey and Yulia Skripal as a Novichok may not be as conclusive as the British authorities have been leading everybody to believe.

That is hardly surprising since it is difficult to see how the Porton Down scientists would only need days to identify a chemical agent as a Novichok when that will take the OPCW’s experts several weeks.

For the record, I personally think the chemical used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal probably was a Novichok.

However I cannot personally see how that is conclusive of anything given that there is now abundant evidence that Novichok agents have been produced in at least test quantities in any number of countries, including the US and Britain, and not just in Russia.

As many have pointed out, saying that because Sergey and Yulia Skripal were poisoned with a Novichok means that Russia must have been involved in the attack on them is rather like saying that because Kim Jong-un’s brother Kim Jong-am was poisoned with VX – a chemical agent developed by Britain – that means that Britain must have been involved in the attack on him.

As for Russia’s motive in seeking to murder Sergey Skripal, no-one has come up with any motive that looks to me in the least convincing.  Some of the motives suggested – eg. that Russia wanted to send a signal to Britain by poisoning Skripal with a deadly chemical or that Skripal was poisoned in order to deter other defectors – look to me frankly speculative and rather like conspiracy theories.

Nothing perhaps illustrates the chaos and muddle of this affair then a story which was given widespread coverage in the British media over the weekend.

This claimed that Sergey Skripal had supposedly written a letter to President Putin asking for a pardon and permission to return to Russia.

The story disintegrated after the Kremlin denied ever receiving such a letter.

In reality the story was obvious nonsense.  Skripal had already been pardoned by President Medvedev before he came to Britain and since he was still a Russian citizen he was free to return to Russia whenever he wanted.

Not only is the Skripal case still ongoing, and the case against Russia far from made, but Britain, the EU and Western government even admit as much.

Though in her statement to the House of Commons of 14th March 2018 British Prime Minister Theresa May said that the British government deemed the Russian state ‘culpable’ for the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal, that claim since then has been retracted.

Western governments, including the US, the EU and the British government, now say no more than that Russia is “highly likely” to have carried out the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal.

As I have previously pointed out, that comes nowhere close to meeting the standard of proof used in Britain in criminal cases, which is “beyond reasonable doubt”.

Yet notwithstanding all this, and notwithstanding that the investigation into the case is still going on, that the case against Russia is far from made out, and that the US, the EU and the British government admit as much, the US and a score of other Western countries have now joined Britain in expelling Russian diplomats.

The logic of this escapes me, unless it is intended – as I have said previously – to be a message to the British investigators and to the OPCW that any finding other than one which can be spun into saying that Russia is responsible for the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal will not be tolerated.

What then of the expulsions themselves?

The expulsions of Russian diplomats which have take place in Europe and in a number of other non-European and non-EU Western countries like Australia, Canada and Norway, have about them a token quality.

None of the countries has expelled more than four diplomats, a level of expulsions which is not going to effect the operation of any Russian embassy in any serious way.

Not only were the expulsions in Europe of a token character, but it seems that no European country is capping the number of diplomats the Russians can post to their embassies.

That means that after a decent interval the Russians will be able to replace all the diplomats who have been expelled.  The small number of diplomats who have been expelled means that the Russians will have no difficulty doing this.

Even this level of token expulsions was too much for some countries.  Austria, Belgium, Greece, Bulgaria, Portugal, Slovakia and Cyprus failed to announce expulsions, as have all the former Yugoslav republics apart from Croatia.

Some countries, notably Austria and Bulgaria, have made known their disagreement with the expulsions.

Turkey – still despite everything a member of the NATO alliance – has made its disagreement clear also.

Even within some of the countries which have expelled Russian diplomats, the decision to do so has been controversial.

In Italy Matteo Salvini – the man most likely to become Italy’s next Prime Minister following the recent election – has made clear his strong disagreement with the expulsions.  According to Reuters Salvini has tweeted the following

Boycotting Russia, renewing sanctions and expelling diplomats does not resolve problems, it aggravates them

The expulsions of Russian diplomats in Europe have not just been token affairs.

They have also highlighted the growing division within the EU about policy towards Russia.  In Italy as Salvini’s comments show they may have even hardened feeling against the EU’s anti-Russian sanctions policy.

It is doubtless alarm about this growing division within the EU over policy towards Russia which explains the recent call from Germany for the abolition of national vetoes in EU Council decisions on foreign policy.

Why then if the expulsions were of a token character did they happen at all?

For an answer to that one must look to the completely different reaction in the US.

Here the expulsions of Russian diplomats is far from token.  Not only have 60 diplomats been expelled – as many as all the other expulsions (including the British expulsion) put together – but in what may be an illegal move 12 Russian diplomats are being expelled from Russia’s UN mission even though these diplomats are accredited to the United Nations and not to the US.

Why this disproportionately large number of expulsions in the US, which is so much greater than that any of the expulsions carried out by the US’s allies?

There are various theories about this, including one which I consider farfetched, which is that the expulsions were supposedly forced on President Trump by his advisers as some sort of ‘punishment’ for his decision to ignore General McMaster’s advice not to telephone President Putin to congratulate him on his election victory.

In my opinion there is a far more likely explanation, which is that the expulsion is belated US reaction to Russia’s gigantic purge of US diplomats and staff from the US embassy and consulates in Russia last summer.

This purge attracted extraordinarily little attention, even though it was by far the biggest single expulsion of diplomats and embassy and consular staff to have happened in modern history.  Here is what I wrote about it at the time

The Russians order to the US to reduce the staff at their embassy and consulates in Russia by 755 persons is in fact unprecedented.  As the BBC rightly says, though a large part of the reduction will no doubt be accounted for by non-diplomatic staff, the Russian announcement still constitutes what is by far the single biggest expulsion of diplomats in modern history

The decision to expel staff was made on Friday, but Mr Putin has now confirmed the number who must go by 1 September.

It brings staff levels to 455, the same as Russia’s complement in Washington.

This is thought to be the largest expulsion of diplomats from any country in modern history, says the BBC’s Laura Bicker in Washington.

The number includes Russian employees of the US diplomatic missions across Russia, the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford in Moscow adds.

Staff in the embassy in Moscow as well as the consulates in Ekaterinburg, Vladivostok and St Petersburg are affected, she says.

Moreover the Russian decision now establishes the principle that the number of personnel at US embassies and consulates in Russia will in future be held to the same level – currently 455 – as the number of personnel at Russian embassies and consulates in the US.

That means that any future expulsions of Russian diplomats in the US – or any US refusal of visas to Russian diplomats to fill vacant posts at the Russian embassies and consulates in the US, as has apparently been happening – will be matched exactly equal expulsions of US diplomats from Russia, and refusals of visas to US diplomats seeking to fill vacant posts in US embassies and consulates in Russia.

That this is a heavy blow to the US is highlighted by one interesting fact.  It turns out that the number of personnel working at US embassies and consulates in Russia was almost three times greater than the number of personnel working at Russian embassies and consulates in the US.

That begs the question of what all these extra US personnel were doing there?   Perhaps US embassies and consulates are less efficient than Russian ones.  However I suspect that the Russians believe that many if not most of these extra people were actually engaged in intelligence gathering and “democracy promotion” activities.

Many people have commented on the quiet atmosphere in which the recent Russian Presidential election was conducted.  Compared to the last Presidential election in 2012 there were no significant anti-Putin protests, no violent or embarrassing incidents, and Navalny’s call for a boycott was ignored.

No one so far as I know has made the connection between the quiet atmosphere of the election and the gigantic purge of US embassy and consular staff which took place in the summer of 2017.

Nor has anyone connected the quiet atmosphere of the election to the effect of Russia’s 2012 Foreign Agent law, which requires Russian NGOs which receive foreign funding and which engage in political activities to register as foreign agents.

Perhaps there is no connection between the quiet atmosphere of the election and those two things.

However if such a connection does exist – and I suspect it does – then it is not difficult to see why Washington’s powerful ‘democracy promotion’ lobby might have found President Putin’s triumphant re-election even more infuriating than it might otherwise have been.

If so then that might explain why the US appears to have seized on the Skripal affair to carry out such a disproportionately large number of expulsions.

In that case it is at least possible that the wave of expulsions in Europe and elsewhere were coordinated by the US in order to give cover to its expulsions.

What consequences will these expulsions have?

Firstly, it is a given that the Russians will retaliate with their own expulsions.  The days when the USSR failed to respond symmetrically to mass expulsions of Soviet diplomats from the West are long gone.

Other than that I doubt that there will be any significant consequences at all.

It is likely that some of the Russian diplomats who are being expelled have been engaging in intelligence work.  However I suspect that the days when Soviet intelligence operations were tied to Soviet embassies ended with the Cold War.

Some Russian embassies probably still have an SVR Resident, and some Russian military attachés probably still are GRU agents.

However today it is much easier for Russians to travel and communicate across borders than it was during the Cold War, and if only for that reason I doubt that most Russian agents are based at or communicate through Russian embassies, where they can be easily monitored by the West’s counter-intelligence agencies.

If so then the recent wave of expulsions of Russian diplomats is not going to disrupt the Russian intelligence effort significantly or even at all.

By contrast Western intelligence operations in Russia do seem still to be heavily linked to Western embassies and consulates, a fact which doubtless reflects the absence of Western visitors to Russia.

If so then reciprocal expulsions of diplomats will hurt the Western intelligence effort in Russia more than it will hurt the Russian intelligence effort in the West.

If the quiet atmosphere in which the Russian Presidential election took place is indeed, even if only in part, a product of the massive purge of US embassy and consular personnel which took place last summer, then this provides further confirmation of this.

Beyond this it is difficult to see what actually has changed.

Top level dialogue between Russia and the West continues.  Save possibly in Washington, Russian diplomats will be replaced.  US and Russian military officers continue to meet and talk to each other in Syria.  The German government apparently remains determined to press ahead with Nord Stream 2 (Theresa May admitted to the House of Commons that Nord Stream 2 was not even discussed at the EU Council meeting last week).  The only important Western government which refuses to communicate with Moscow at a top level is the British.

With so many EU countries unwilling even to expel Russian diplomats significant further EU sanctions against Russia look extremely unlikely, whilst the US has ruled out further significant sanctions of its own.

Possibly there will be more sanctions of individual Russian businessmen, companies and officials.  However an EU diplomat has apparently admitted that the EU has practically exhausted the list of such individuals to sanction.  Besides it’s difficult to see what those sanctions have achieved anyway.

Even in Britain – the supposed centre of this particular storm – the Conservative government remains unwilling to impose sanctions on individual Russian businessmen and companies, possibly because many of them give money to the Conservative Party.

As for talk of the world sliding into war I find that unwarranted and overdone.

The practice of treating diplomats as disposable pawns in a West versus Russia chess game began in the Cold War.  For any Russian diplomat posted to the West, and for any Western diplomat posted to Russia, being expelled is an occupational hazard.

The Russians scarcely ever initiate these expulsions, but for Western leaders expelling Russian diplomats is an easy way to play tough with Moscow and to strike a Churchillian pose without taking any real risks.

That the West is choosing to respond to the Skripal case by expelling Russian diplomats is not a reason to be alarmed or to worry about war.  On the contrary it is more reason not to take this ‘crisis’ entirely seriously.

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