The confrontation between Russia and Western powers appears to be going beyond hysteria over diplomacy, as the two sides fight tit-for-tat by expelling large numbers of diplomats from each other.
A recent collective expulsion of around 150 Russian diplomats from over two dozens of Western countries has finally exhausted Russia’s tolerance. Moscow responded with equivalent measures against diplomatic personnel from those countries, in a relentless counterpunch further escalating the already strained relations between the two sides.
With the inertia of the sanctions spiral going on, Russia and the West are expected to continue the hostility in the diplomatic sphere and even expand it to other areas that are more painful for both sides in the foreseeable future, experts said.
DIPLOMATIC WAR TO CONTINUE
Tensions between Russia and Western countries have exacerbated over the current exchange of diplomatic sanctions.
In mid March, Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats over the poisoning of a former Russian double agent. In the wake of London’s move, more than two dozens of countries including the United States decided to expel staff of Russian diplomatic missions.
Former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were reportedly exposed to a nerve agent and found unconscious on a bench at a shopping center in the British city of Salisbury on March 4.
Britain accused the Kremlin of masterminding the attempted murder of the two Skripals. Russia denied any role in the case.
As the concerted “provocation” by the West raged on, Russia did not wait long to fight back. After announcing the expulsion of diplomatic personnel of Britain and the United States and the closure of the U.S. consulate general in St. Petersburg, Moscow went on to declare a corresponding number of diplomats as “personae non gratae” from another 23 countries.
Worse still, in the heat of the “race of expulsions,” none of the two sides have showed signs of putting on the brakes. Mutual diplomatic sanctions seems to be the keynote of the confrontation between Russia and the West for the moment.
“The diplomatic war initiated by the United States is not over and in the coming months we will see its next round with new steps taken by the United States and countermeasures by the Russian diplomacy,” said Viktor Olevich, a senior research fellow at the non-profit research institution Actual Politics Center in Russia.
There is a very high probability that Washington may shut down another Russian consulate in the United States while Moscow may in turn close another U.S. consulate, most probably in Yekaterinburg, according to Olevich.
BREWING ECONOMIC SANCTIONS
Although the question hanging over the spy-poisoning attack remains unanswered, one thing is for sure: Russia’s reputation has been damaged in the eyes of the international community while the alliance between the United States and Europe has been consolidated.
” … the aim of strengthening this Trans-Atlantic alliance was reached. In fact, some European countries, which started doubting the necessity to continue this anti-Russian policy, are now following this Anglo-American anti-Russian course,” Olevich said.
Analysts believe this plays right into the hands of the United States, which views Russia as one of the biggest threats to its global domination, and which therefore wants more sanctions against Moscow.
“The United States can go further in increasing pressure on Russia, both in the diplomatic and economic spheres — from the regular closure of consulates to financial sanctions following the pattern of those imposed against Iran,” said Fedor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine.
Valery Solovei, a political scientist at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, said Western countries may have already started considering a joint imposition of economic measures such as an oil embargo, a complete ban on the purchase of the Russian national debt and the blockade of technology transfers, which would cause “irreparable damage.”
On the other hand, Moscow also has a number of options that can be quite sensitive to the West. Possible targets include U.S. companies operating in Russia and investments in Russian securities by trade unions in some U.S. states, according to Olevich. Plus, oil and gas can always be an effective tool of pressure on European countries.
“U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman has already announced the possibility of applying new economic measures against Russia, including measures against Russian assets. In this case, both symmetrical and asymmetric answers can be expected from Russia,” Olevich said.
ROOM FOR MANOEUVRE
It is widely expected that the tensions between Russia and the West will not ease off anytime soon.
“Our relations are getting worse. It’s like a cart that goes down the slope … It is necessary to undertake extraordinary efforts to stop it, but no one can,” Solovei said.
In view of the Russian authorities’ tight schedule including the formation of the cabinet, the FIFA World Cup and the nationwide municipal elections, as well as the U.S. Congress elections, the two sides are unlikely to change the “downward inertia” in Russia-West relations by the end of this year, Solovei said.
Nevertheless, Russia-West relations are not totally hopeless. In recent years, Europe has started having second thoughts about imposing sanctions on Russia, as some political leaders said that sanctions contradicted the interests of their countries and peoples.
In fact, Some European countries are starting to show the will to mend ties with Moscow. Germany has expressed its willingness to resume dialogue with Russia and to eventually re-build trust. French President Emmanuel Macron confirmed that he would visit Russia in May. Some countries even said they will allow Russia to send other diplomats instead of those expelled.
“All the current coordinated expulsions of diplomats is nothing more than a gesture of symbolic solidarity with the position of the United Kingdom. This, of course, is very unpleasant for Russia as it is causing reputational damage, but it is not dangerous,” Solovei said.
On the other hand, there is still room for cooperation between Russia and Western countries on a range of pressing issues on the international agenda, such as the Syrian and the Ukrainian peace talks.
“Clearly, it is somehow necessary to maintain international relations so that the current situation does not go into a hot phase … There must be certain rationality in foreign policies, even in the current irrational situation. After all, apart from the tough power, the West, by and large, has almost no answer now,” said Maxim Bratersky, professor of the National Research University Higher School of Economics.