Shahid M Amin
CURRENTLY, Russia is engaged with the West in a game of expulsion of diplomats on an unprecedented scale. It all began on March 4, 2018 with poisoning of a former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, living in Salisbury, reportedly by the use of a chemical weapon. He is still in a critical condition while his daughter is said to be recovering. After investigation, the UK government was convinced that the poisoning had been carried out by the Russian government. Prime Minister Theresa May told parliament on March 27 that Britain along with “its friends and partners in the EU, North America, NATO and beyond” had carried out a mass expulsion of Russian diplomats. It was the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history and sent a message that “we will not tolerate Russia’s continued attempts to flout international law and undermine our values”. 23 countries expelled more than 115 Russian diplomats.
Though President Trump has in the past shown a soft corner for Putin, the US also joined the British and others by expelling 60 Russian diplomats, who it described as spies, and ordered the shutdown of the Russian Consulate in Seattle. A White House spokesman said the expulsions were part of ‘a coordinated effort’ and that President Trump ‘spoke with many foreign leaders, European allies and others and encouraged them to join with the United States in this announcement.’ The expulsion was ‘an important message to send to Russia (for) degrading their intelligence capabilities.’ Another US official stated that the expulsions of diplomats were in response to ‘a reckless attempt by the Russian government to murder a British citizen with a military-grade nerve agent’. Another official said that the measures were also intended as a response to ‘a steady drumbeat of destabilizing and aggressive actions’ by Moscow against the US and its allies.
Russia called the expulsions ‘a provocative gesture’ and warned that it would retaliate and has expelled a similar number of diplomats from the countries concerned, including 60 American diplomats. The US Consulate in St. Petersburg was closed. Foreign Minister Lavrov warned that any action against Russian diplomats would be ‘mirrored’ by Moscow and announced measures against 23 countries: Australia, Albania, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Ukraine. It also reserved the right to take action against Belgium, Hungary, Georgia and Montenegro. Russia rejected the British charge that it had carried out the chemical attempted murder of the Russian double agent and demanded proof. However, the British government has refused to provide a sample of the nerve agent to Russia, but has given it to OPCW, Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is conducting its own investigation.
Relations between the two camps have been tense for several years, mostly in the context of Ukraine, formerly a part of Russia, where ethnic Russians have defied their government, with encouragement from Moscow, which has been extending barely-concealed military help to the secessionists. The crisis deepened in 2014 when Russia sent its armed forces to annex Crimea, a part of Ukraine. President Putin has declared the ‘near abroad’ (i.e. former Soviet republics, now independent states) as its ‘sphere of influence’. This is akin to the old Monroe Doctrine, which was a US warning to Europe to keep away from affairs of North and South America. Russian foreign policy under Putin has an imperialist slant. In 2009, five former Presidents of East European states said in an open letter that “Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th century agenda with 21st century tactics and methods. It uses overt and covert means of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation in order to advance its interests and challenge the transatlantic orientation of Central and Eastern Europe.”
It is noteworthy that Putin himself was a KGB officer during the Soviet era and his espionage background probably explains this kind of behavior: the assassination in 2006 in London of an ex-Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, who had found asylum in Britain. From his deathbed, he had accused Putin for his malady, the first confirmed victim of lethal polonium-210 induced acute radiation syndrome. There was probably no need for Russia to kill these two former spies, considering the kind of severe international reaction that has followed. But it is Putin’s personality that led to such exploits. As the top Russian leader since 2000, he has put his stamp on Russia as a strong, nationalist leader. Russia has always had a tradition of strong autocratic leaders, both during the Tsarist period and under Communist rule.
The first post-Communist leader Yeltsin was popular but erratic and disorganized. Yeltsin brought Putin out of nowhere and made him his successor. Putin seized the opportunity with both hands. His latest election victory last month with 76% of vote was an amazing proof of his popularity. The liberal Russian circles oppose him strongly but the masses like his nationalistic, go-getter personality, what they see as a strong leader who has given stability to the country and asserted Russian power abroad. This mass-scale expulsion of diplomats has brought Russia’s relations with the West to a new low. But it would be premature to say that a Cold War has developed that is taking the world towards a showdown. Putin is a realist and knows Russia’s limitations. It is presently in no position to have an outright confrontation with USA and the West.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.