The largest collective expulsion of over 100 Russian diplomats by 20-plus nations, including the United States, most major European countries, Australia and Canada, shook the world earlier this week. This was in retaliation for an attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain, using military-grade nerve agent “Novichok”. The British government had earlier expelled 23 Russian diplomats a couple of weeks back, to which Moscow had responded by expelling an equal number of Britons.
In 2006, another Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko was killed in London by radioactive polonium-210, administered apparently via a cup of tea by a source, when he was investigating the links of the Russian mafia to Spain. In the six days that he lived post-attack, he blamed the Kremlin and specifically Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia subsequently refused to extradite suspect Lugovoi, saying its constitution did not permit it. But that occurred before EU-Russia relations plummeted over Russian annexation of the Crimea and depredation in Ukraine, starting 2014. Russia had also not yet resurrected its role in West Asia to defend Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime.
The attack was near the British Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), perhaps to dissimulate that the nerve agent was sourced from there. In fact, post-attack forensic analysis was conducted there, determining its Russian provenance. Prime Minister Theresa May, battling Brexit fatigue at home, needed to show toughness and thus abjured the Litvinenko route of merely blaming some Russian agent. This was also, after the Second World War, the first nerve agent attack in Europe. It was additionally in clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The reaction had to be immediate and sharp.
The leaders of the European Union met on March 23. The chorus for an immediate reaction was led by French President Emmanuel Macron, to which even normally measured German Chancellor assented. The victims remain alive, but in critical condition. Skripal had reportedly petitioned Mr Putin seeking to return to Russia. The Russian embassy in the US defiantly conducted a Twitter poll on which US consulate to shut in Russia in retaliation for the US shutting down the Russian consulate in Seattle. The most-voted-for US consulate to shut was apparently that in St. Petersburg, the city where Mr Putin cut his teeth as a young politician.
The nations joining the UK in declaring Russian diplomats as persona non grata and their numbers are interesting. All the major European powers were on board, except Portugal. Bulgaria, despite holding the rotating EU presidency, remained neutral. Canada and Australia joined as close allies. The US of course has a history of such expulsions. President Ronald Reagan had expelled 80 Russian diplomats in 1986, at the height of the Cold War, over espionage charges. President Barack Obama in 2016 likewise expelled 35 Russian diplomats, blaming Russian hacking of the computers of the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The case of the US under President Donald Trump is unique. His administration is under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller for links to suspected Russian interference in the last US presidential election. Despite that, Mr Trump has been unwilling to distance himself in public from Mr Putin. In fact, even after the UK attack, Mr Trump rang up Mr Putin to congratulate him on his electoral victory in an election seen as more charade than fair contest. Not only he did not raise the Sergei Skripal issue but was unrepentant even after an internal memo leak which advised him not to felicitate President Putin. Instead, he launched a witch-hunt for the whistle-blower.
The feisty US reaction thus requires examination. Besides shutting down the Russian consulate in Seattle, which is near a major US naval base and other vital installations, the US expelled 48 Russian diplomats from its embassy in Washington and another 12 from the United Nations mission. The second could invite criticism as the US could be seen as interfering with the functioning of the UN. Russia as a permanent member of the UN Security Council could trigger a debate at the UN over US interference. It remains to be seen whether it can find allies in this venture, including what position, if any, China adopts.
There is hardly any doubt that Mr Trump, a reluctant Russia-baiter, seems to have sprung belatedly into action over his rising difficulties with a two-women attack by porn star Stormy Daniels and former “playmate” Karen McDougal. Both allege affairs or sexual encounters with a married Mr Trump. Leaving aside the impropriety of adultery by the leader of the “free” world, as the West calls itself, there are questions over the huge sums paid or the promises of television careers made to buy the silence of these two women. Mr Trump stands fully trumped, proverbially speaking. He desperately needed a distraction that drew attention away from the ladies rampaging on the electronic and cyber media. He also required to be seen as tough on Russia, thus negating an impression of cosiness with Mr Putin in view of the Mueller investigation inching closer to him. A former CIA director, John Brennan, has said “I think he’s afraid of the President of Russia”, going on to explain that Mr Putin may be holding information that could harm Mr Trump. Significantly, while the US reacted, Mr Trump, a Twitter aficionado, remained tweet-less on the expulsions.
The Russians have promised retaliation, in kind or worse. Russia, however, has vulnerabilities. It hosts the 2018 soccer World Cup in June-July. Britain had already said that the royal family will not attend. European Council president Donald Tusk has said additional measures are possible.
Mr Putin would have to weigh all factors before acting on bluster. Austria, Greece and Portugal may now be on the fence, but not if Russia provokes the EU by escalating the fight, say by threatening to cut gas supplies. Perhaps Mr Putin will choose to back off, to fight another day. The next few days will make things much clearer.