The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

In spite of the impressive international front against Russia following the former spy’s poisoning in Britain, its activity seems to be limited mainly to rhetoric and diplomatic gestures, which will not achieve Russia’s isolation

The international reaction to the poisoning of the former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, seemingly reflects the creation of coalitions in the new cold war. The international headlines are quick to inform us about countries getting together around this event with one message: who is for us and who is against us? However, a closer look at the situation suggests a more complex state of affairs.

As of now, 27 countries have expelled Russian diplomats. According to Britain’s Prime-Minister, Theresa May, this is a manifestation of unity and the greatest coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats in history. Prime-Minister May has been praised all over Europe as the leader who unified the continent into unequivocal action. Even countries like Canada and Australia have joined in, and NATO has expelled seven Russian diplomats. Other countries, such as Greece, did not expel diplomats but expressed their public support of Britain.

An examination of the international rhetoric that followed the expulsion indicates an escalation on each side. The Russians and their supporters have warned against “Russo-phobia” and a western crusade against Russia, which will harm global international security. The Iranian press published news in line with the Russian position, doubting the fact that Russia was behind the spy’s poisoning.

“Western” expressions have also escalated since the expulsion. Theresa May has declared that a future action would be taken against the Russian intelligence network in Europe, and that Britain would use all means at its disposal to deal with its enemies. Statements of this kind were made by American and European leaders as well.

But a closer look at the steps taken since the poisoning suggests a different picture. Aside from the US and Britain, the steps in practice have been limited to diplomatic gestures and rhetoric. Ireland, after hesitations, reluctantly announced the expulsion of one Russian diplomat, being undoubtedly required to make some kind of gesture towards London, with whom it is negotiating these days over the mutual border.

Austria immediately announced that it was not going to expel Russian diplomats, because it was interested in serving as a negotiator vis-a-vis Russia. New Zealand, a member of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance with the US, Britain, Australia and Canada, condemned the poisoning but stated that there was no evidence of Russian spies in its territory. Turkey, a NATO member, condemned the poisoning but emphasized that it would not expel diplomats, in view of its good relations with Russia.

Even steps that have been taken by countries that were quick to support Britain, were not unequivocal steps. Germany, who was the first to stand by Britain, expelled only four diplomats, a relatively small number considering the number of Russian diplomats stationed in its territory. After the expulsion, Germany approved the development of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipe, which is expected to raise Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, weaken Ukraine as a gas passageway, and compromise the South Stream project which is planned to provide Europe with gas from the Caucasus, and not from Russia. France, who supported Britain alongside with Germany, officially confirmed that President Macron would honor his commitment to participate in an economic convention which is to take place in Russia in May. Both countries claimed that these were pragmatic and constructive steps to take.

In the international arena, beyond Western countries, Russia has continued to conduct itself as usual. Since the diplomats’ expulsion, Russia has promoted its gas collaboration with Qatar, and agreed with the OPEC countries, and specifically with Saudi-Arabia, to increase their cooperation in coordinating gas outputs. Furthermore, Russia has been in contact with Japan, who had shown a formal interest in cooperating with Russia in gas projects.

The Russian media has quoted senior Russian officials saying that the steps taken against Russia so far could certainly be contained, provided they did not escalate. Others openly and bluntly pointed out that a Trans-Atlantic solidarity could only exist as long as there was no fear of economic damage.

Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov commented similarly, saying that the US had used blackmail on the countries that expelled Russian diplomats. He further said that these steps showed that there were hardly any independent countries in Europe, and that the European elites were operating regardless of the public’s will. Lavrov quoted a poll taken in Germany, showing that about 80% of the Germans were against the sanctions.

It is possible that the Russian activity is indeed meant to cause a split in the West, as pointed out by General Mattis, US Secretary of Defense. However, it is highly doubtful that other countries, besides the US and Britain, would be willing to risk their interests, mainly economic ones, by upsetting Russia and taking further steps. A significant message to the Russian regime involves taking economic measures against its cronies, like the sanctions imposed by the U.S.A several weeks ago, under the Sanctions Law, against Russian personalities that were added to the list.

Several weeks before the poisoning Britain passed a law allowing the government to examine every asset that exceeds the value of £50,000, whose funding source is unknown. Nowadays, however, when the City of London’s fate as a world financial center is at stake, because of the Brexit process, Britain would be risking its capital’s economic status even further, if it chases every foreign investment fitting the above description.

Even the international sanctions imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea, were intended to persuade Russia to back off, but not to critically damage its economic ties with the West. It is safe to assume that today, beyond the steps taken by the US, there will be no international willingness to back statements with actions and to operate even at this level. Russia, apparently, understands this very clearly.

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photo: By Peter Curbishley [CC BY 2.5 ], via Wikimedia Commons