‘Стоим на краю пропасти. Надо идти вперед.’ (Apocryphal statement attributed to Leonid Brezhnev)
Russian-Western relations appeared to plummet even further into the abyss yesterday with the coordinated decision of around 20 Western countries to expel Russian diplomats as a response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in England. Leading the way was the United States, which is expelling 60 Russians. The next largest contingent of expelled Russians is in Ukraine, which announced that 13 Russians must leave the country. (I find it odd that Ukraine should take this act in response to something which happened in the UK, but not to what it regularly calls ‘Russian aggression’ on its own territory, but so be it.) Third on the list was Canada which is chucking out 4 Russians and refusing to accredit another 3 who had been due to arrive. Germany, meanwhile, is expelling 4 diplomats. Overall, about 100 Russians are getting their marching orders.
This is quite unprecedented. Diplomatic expulsions are normally a response to something which directly affects one’s own country. I can’t think of a precedent for a country throwing out diplomats for something unconnected to it. Perhaps such a precedent exists, but I doubt that there has ever been a mass expulsion across so many countries as this. It is a quite extraordinary act of diplomatic disapproval.
That said, it is largely symbolic. It will make it harder for Russian embassies to do what they were previously doing (which in some cases undoubtedly involves espionage), but in due course new personnel will arrive and get to work, and things will get back to the way they were before. Western diplomats will be expelled from Russia in response, temporarily messing up the work of the embassies in question, but likewise things will eventually get back to normal. People will be irritated. Mutual distrust will be stronger than ever. Attitudes will harden. It will have a decidedly negative effect. But real, concrete interests won’t suffer too much.
In this way, the refusal of the United Kingdom (and also of its allies) to take more radical measures against Russia is quite striking. It appears that the West isn’t too interested in hurting its own bottom line. And in that regard, Russia got some very good news today. Germany has granted all the permits required for the construction of the German segment of the North Stream 2 gas pipeline. A spokesman for the pipeline project stated that he was confident that the other countries involved – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Russia – would similarly grant the required permits in ‘the coming month’.
Yesterday Germany expelled four Russian diplomats. But today it gave the go-ahead for North Stream 2 – a symbolic slap on Russia’s wrist, followed by a extremely valuable decision in Russia’s favour. If I was Russian, I’d be far more pleased by the latter than annoyed by the former. Perhaps, when it comes to what really matters, things aren’t quite as bad as they seem. The West is willing to stamp its foot and shake its fist, but it isn’t willing to put its money where its mouth is. Real progress on real issues may be possible after all, and we can move back from the abyss and forward in another direction.