Russia can expect to be welcoming over 100 of its diplomats back to Moscow in the coming weeks. Sixteen states have today ordered 106 Russians to leave their territory in a coordinated series of national announcements. The US ordered 12 Russian representatives to the United Nations in New York to leave, and a further 48 were also expelled alongside the order to close the Russian consulate in Seattle. Canada, France, Germany, and Poland each ordered four diplomats to leave, Ukraine ordered 13 to depart, and ten other European states took similar actions.
The coordination of national actions itself indicates a few things.
- This is serious. States do not readily expel diplomats from their territory. They can signal displeasure with another country through a variety of means in both public and private channels, for example recalling their own Ambassador to Russia. Ordering Russian diplomats to leave is very public and purposeful. The coordination of national activity, in this case, indicates clearly that certain Western states share the UK’s concerns about Russian activity and have been convinced that Russia must answer questions about the chemical weapons attack in the UK earlier this month.
- The response increases the pressure on Russia. The UK has been working with its allies and partners over the last few weeks on how to respond to the use of a chemical warfare agent in Salisbury (UK) in an attempted assassination of a former Russian intelligence officer. The UK has stated it believes Russia is responsible and its Western partners have now acted in a manner that supports that claim. Democratic states do not expel diplomatic staff on a whim. This coordinated response indicates that whatever information the UK has shared with its allies and partners has been convincing enough for them act and to act together. Coupled with other UK activity, including last week’s arrival of inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to take samples from the victims of the attack, the signals here are that the UK, and others, have a very high degree of confidence in the evidence about the chemical weapon used. Even if Russia did not order or sanction the attack – something that will probably not be known for many years – the type of chemical used (the alleged ‘novichok’ type of chemical warfare agent) leads back to Russia and some very serious questions. The UK is not alone in holding this view.
- It is not just about chemical weapons. The chemical weapons incident is being linked to other Russian actions over the last few years. As the Canadian statement notes: “This is part of a wider pattern of unacceptable behaviour by Russia, including complicity with the Assad regime, the annexation of Crimea, Russian-led fighting in eastern Ukraine, support for civil strife in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and other neighbouring countries, interference in elections, and disinformation campaigns.”
- Russia will retaliate. Further diplomatic expulsions are likely for the states who have acted today. Indeed, TASS is reporting that Russia will reciprocate in each case. One potential key early indicator will be if Russia reciprocates (in numbers) or escalates the number of expulsions across some or all states. Another aspect to watch carefully is whether or not Russia responds to some states more harshly than others.
- This issue is not going away. The deaths of various Russians over the last few years have been ignored or subject to private diplomatic signals or statements. Aside from the inevitable response from Russia in the coming hours and days, this chemical weapons issue is not going to fade any time soon. Last week inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrived in the UK to take samples and send them for independent analysis. At some point in the next two to four weeks the results of that analysis will have to be revealed. If the results confirm the UK analysis, pressure will mount in the OPCW and internationally for Russia to explain a few things. If the results contest the UK analysis, the UK will itself have some explaining to do to its allies and the wider world. Even if things calm down over the next few days, the issue will be pushed to the fore once again in a few weeks.
- The continued fallout will have negative implications in the near term. A continuation of the deterioration in Russian-Western relations generally should be expected. At stake here is not simply chemical weapons but the actions of the Russian state in a variety of areas as the Canadian statement notes. The collective signalling from Western states might, however, act as a catalyst for change. A slow, walk back from both covert and overt adversarial activity might be initiated if Russia takes the view that its interests are now being hurt and other foreign policies thwarted because of its actions. In short, the perceived advantages of such activities are outweighed by the disadvantages incurred by a coordinated Western response. It is not likely to be identifiable in words any time soon, but actions over the coming months may indicate a reduction in tensions.
- How, or if, other states respond, will be informative. Statements of support or statements objecting to the Western response may indicate if this issue remains contained as a Western-Russian flare-up or is spreading to the wider international order. We should expect Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and potentially others to express support for Russia and decry the perceived hostility of the UK, US, Canada, and others. What China, India, Brazil, South Africa, or others do or not do in the coming days will be an important indicator of whether or not Russia stands alone, or the risk of a West versus the Rest international dispute is taking shape as many fear.
- There will be knock-on effects. Outside the immediate issue of chemical weapons where the dispute itself is likely to have serious detrimental impacts on the CWC and the OPCW in 2018, there are likely to be direct and rippling indirect effects on other arms control issues in the coming months. US-Russia relations in the nuclear weapons area have been deteriorating for several years and this is one further obstacle to any new talks on nuclear arms control. The fate of the Iran agreement – the JCPOA – and the expected summit between the US and the DPRK will also experience some of the negative implications of this dispute. As, indeed, will the routine arms control meetings under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, and in the United Nations Security Council as it attempts to deal with continued use of chemical weapons in the Syrian war.
Spy poisoning: Russian diplomats expelled across US and Europe http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43545565 [March 26, 2018]
Canada expels Russian diplomats in solidarity with United Kingdom https://www.canada.ca/en/global-affairs/news/2018/03/canada-expels-russian-diplomats-in-solidarity-with-united-kingdom.html [March 26, 2018]