A wave of countries are expelling Russian diplomats on their soil in a show of solidarity with the United Kingdom.
On Monday and Tuesday, more than 20 countries — all Western nations — announced they would expel Russian diplomats. In all, more than 130 Russian diplomats have been affected affected so far, including 60 in the United States.
The controversy started around the March 4 poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter, Julia, 33, on British soil. Russia, for its part, denies any role in the poisoning, and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has promised a “tough response” to the expulsions of its diplomats over the last few days.
But there’s a much larger picture here, beyond the current diplomatic tit-for-tat.
All the countries who have expelled diplomats so far are Western nations. Indeed, there’s not a single country in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, or Latin America participating in this diplomatic purge.
Theodore Karasik, project investigator for the Russia in the Middle East Project at the Jamestown Foundation said what’s happening now represents a “bifurcation between Russia and the West.”
The East-West split coming isn’t about religious or cultural differences of course, but about Russia — with China — creating a sphere of influence that counters the West.
“We’re already in a new cold war atmosphere, and it is likely to become worse because of U.S-Russian competition in Syria and U.S. attitudes toward North Korea and Iran.”
“Some of these other countries see Russia as a useful partner and moderator in the conflicts and other strategic problems that are happening now,” said Karasik, adding that Middle East states are developing ties with Russia now because they see Russia — not the West — as “the future arbiter of future governments and maps, drawing borders in the region.”
This represents a shift, where countries that are allies to the United States or the E.U. — such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar — are “actively engaging the Russians across a spectrum of areas including energy, investment, military training and arms purchases, operating in a north-south corridor that is impervious to U.S. and European action to break those ties,” said Karasik.
“We’re already in a new Cold War atmosphere, and it is likely to become worse because of U.S-Russian competition in Syria and U.S. attitudes toward North Korea and Iran that are boldened by the appointment of [National Defense Advisor] John Bolton and [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo,” he added.
Yuval Weber, a fellow at Daniel Morgan Graduate School and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told ThinkProgress that Russia’s big-picture strategic goal is to “end the U.S.-dominated, Western, liberal order.”
One way of doing that is for Russia to be everywhere the United States is and to offer an alternative to local governments. Unlike the American model, Russia’s diplomatic practice is to, “Just do diplomacy, leader-to-leader, and not dictate to local leaders to change anything about the way they govern,” said Weber.
Russia also seeks be a mediator in a way that allows them to shape interactions on a bilateral basis. “So if there’s a problem between Israel and Hezbollah, Russian diplomats can be present in both places…they not only want to insert themselves, and they want to show that they’re an alternative to the U.S.” he said.
Although this booting out of diplomats seems drastic, “Things can certainly get much worse,” said Weber. In other words, the West is not without options in the face of Russian aggression and maneuvering in the East.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s biggest fear, said Weber, is that other governments go after the wealth and property of super-wealthy Russians.
“Because those are the people who still support Putin either directly or indirectly,” said Weber. And if the wealthy expats are targeted and Putin can’t help them, “that is a way to essentially generate an elite fracture within President Putin’s political coalition. And that will be a direct challenge to his rule in Russia itself,” said Weber, adding that the West has not yet chosen to go down that road.
If that happened, though, lacking soft power, Putin can either respond with violence or be exposed as someone who does not have the power to protect the elite abroad.
This diplomatic spat, though, which started in 2016, has almost run its course.
In response to Russian meddling in the presidential elections that year, President Barack Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats. By the summer of 2017, President Donald Trump slapped Russia with sanctions over its actions in the Ukraine. Russia responded in July by cutting over 700 U.S. diplomatic positions there, with many of those jobs being occupied by Russian citizens.
The Russians created a new entity, Elite Security Holdings, to deal with U.S. visa processing, and that entity is run by former KGB general Viktor Budano.
It’s important to note the timing of all of this: The people who are being expelled are also all being labeled as “spies.”
“These moves have great optics to them because it shows that the West is expunging Russian spies from their territories, and that’s a PR move to show that the West is serious about Russian aggression,” said Karasik.
And part of that aggressive stance was the March 1 speech given by Russian President Vladimir Putin, where he said any attack on Russian allies would be seen as an attack on Russia.
“It’s about reach, and about presence, and about Russian capabilities,” said Karasik.
What about Syria and Ukraine?
While this escalation continues, so do the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.
Russia is also seeking to influence how the Syrian war comes to and end, and when that happens Russia’s authority is recognized in the region. However, the Russians, said Weber, have also communicated that “solving Syria, according to U.S. interests would be permissible, if that was linked to some favorable result in Ukraine.”
What Russia wants is a “neutral Ukraine” — through federalization, for instance — and that Crimea would be recognized as part of the Russian Federation. Russia also wants sanctions imposed on it due to the conflict in Ukraine to end.
But neither conflicts will be solved without active U.S. involvement.
“And that involves President Trump to articulate what peace in Syria and peace in the Ukraine look like, and what is the United States is willing to do to work with the European Union, Russia, and other respective powers in order to make that happen,” said Weber.
And without Trump going after that solution, what we’ll have, he added, “is the endless, grinding status quo that we’ve seen to such horrible effect in both Eastern Ukraine and many parts of Syria.”