Response to US expulsions may be symmetrical but does not mean Skripal crisis is being contained
Russia's announcement that it will expel 60 US diplomats and close the American consulate in St Petersburg was a predictable and symmetrical response to the amazingly tough decision by Washington to throw out 60 Russian envoys, but left unanswered the question over how far the deterioration in western diplomatic relations with Moscow has yet to descend.
The fallout from the attempted poisoning of the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal has a pas de deux quality about it with both sides appearing to know the next steps.
And after the American expulsions it was inevitable that the Russian foreign ministry would punish the European countries it believes succumbed to US and UK bullying by also expelling Russian diplomats from their capitals. European ambassadors were summoned one by one to the Russian foreign ministry on Friday to be informed of the individuals among their Moscow staff being expelled. Remonstrations “wouldve been” made, but one or two envoys per embassy, and sometimes their families, will now pack their bags and head home- largely blameless victims caught in the diplomatic crossfire.
That does not mean the crisis will necessarily end there, or that the crisis is contained.
Russia, whose standing among the international community is badly damaged, is determined to do going any further to clear its name, or at least throw up enough chaff so that a chunk of western public opinion doubts the British intelligence service's account of Skripal's poisoning. Moscow has already indicated a meeting on Monday of the executive of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons( OPCW) to have” an honest conversation” about the poisoning.
The OPCW is studying samples- provided by the UK- of the novichok nerve agent allegedly use, but does not have the ability to judge the identity of the person that placed the agent by the door of Skripal's house. But the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is determined to put the UK on the defensive and has already claimed that” if our western partners dodge the session then it will be further evidence that every thing that is happened is a provocation “.
Russia has also responded to the apparent recovery of Yulia Skripal, who was poisoned alongside her father. She may be able to provide insights into how the poisoning occurred, or even reveal whether she knows of some other motive by some other non-state actor.
The British intelligence services will be debriefing her as soon as her health permits. It would clearly be a huge embarrassment for the UK government if it emerged she believed the Russian country was not involved.
As it is, the UK government is aware that some allied leaders, despite the public show of solidarity, face sceptical voters at home who are either against a confrontation with Vladimir Putin, or expect more convincing proof to be provided.
The UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, in a speech late on Wednesday waxed lyrical about how the Skripal episode represented a turning point in the west's approach to Russia, but his officials are aware that this mood can easily dissipate as other considerations, such as commerce, energy security or the Middle East come into play.
The UK will try to push for further measures against Russia at the June meeting of the EU heads of state. If it is ambitious, it may may challenge German support for Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline from Russia that could set European energy demand at the mercy of Moscow.
The great unknown is the stance of Donald Trump despite a phone call with Theresa May this week. The any act of the US administration have been strong, and the words of the state department equally vehement. State department officials will be in London next week to discuss the next steps with their UK equivalents. But Trump has largely been silent about the episode, and his reluctance to fall out with Putin personally, for whatever reason, is glaring.
It is hard to estimate how much the US president will prevail upon his Russian counterpart to rethink Moscow's strategy of slow, remorseless, hybrid confrontation.
There is also a sense that confrontation can be a cul de sac. Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador to the UK at the time of the Alexander Litvinenko poisoning in London in 2006, said this week:” There is already a massive trust deficit, and that trust is even further injury with the suspicion that Russia was behind the attack, tolerated it, or was negligent in let it happen.
” I find even less of a future in being able to try to rebuild trust with Russia. The outcome would be even lower chances of discussing arms control, military cooperation and a solution to the Donbass conflict. We are playing with fire, and I hope that it is also clear to the Russian side that this is not in its interest. Diplomacy's greatest asset is trust, and that is getting ruined here .”
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