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Russian expulsions driven by growing distrust

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Russian President Vladimir Putin. Anatoly Maltsev/Pool via REUTERS

Nato expelled seven Russian diplomats on Tuesday, joining more than 20 Western states that have sent off more than 130 envoys over a suspected nerve gas attack on a spy in the UK. The coordinated actions exceed anything that happened in the Cold War and raise questions of security in Europe.


The military alliance sent off seven diplomats and blocked the appointment of three others, reducing the Russian mission to its offices from 30 to 20.

“It sends a very clear message to Russia that it has costs,” said Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg in reference to the attack in Salisbury, UK, that has left former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in critical condition since 4 March.

Stoltenberg stressed that Nato would still seek regular talks with Moscow, whose access to the alliance was already limited after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

But the alliance joining in a series of expulsions underlines a rift between Russia and the Western world that was unprecedented even during the long years of the Cold War.

“There were larger expulsions from individual countries, such as the United Kingdom in 1976, which expelled more than 100 diplomats,” says Alexanter Titov, a lecturer in Russian history and politics at Queen’s University Belfast.

“But there’s never been coordination of more than a dozen countries expelling at the same time and for the same reason.”

Lack of trust

While Moscow has denounced the expulsions and denied involvement in the attack, neither Russia nor the Western countries are showing great receptiveness to what each other has to say of the events.

“If I were to sum up the situation, it should be seen as a general lack of trust,” says Rasmus Nilsson, who teaches Russian foreign and security policy at University College London.

“What we’re seeing now, you can certainly chart back to the Ukrainian crisis of 2014, and probably even further back,” he says. “We are in a situation where both sides have given up on the other.”

The participation of France, Germany and some 15 other EU countries in the coordinated expulsions marks something of a departure from what Moscow has seen in the West.

“The Russian policy has always been to differentiate between the United States and Britain as very hawkish and hostile, and friendlier governments in Europe such as Germany and France, but that seems to be shifting,” says Alexander Titov.

“So Russia needs to rethink its relations with the European Union.”

Realignment between Russia and the West

While other countries with which Russia has been building ties, including China, Iran and Turkey, have not sent off their diplomats, Moscow’s international status is nonetheless shifting.

“Over the last four or five years, Russia has gone from establishing itself as a central part of the international system through institutions such as United Nations and so on, to openly being called a rogue state by a number of prominent Western regimes,” says Nilsson.

“That’s not a permanent situation of course,” he continues. “But it’s certain that international distrust of Russia is going to stick around for a while for many countries and certainly the Western ones.”

The coordinated expulsion of diplomats may make widespread distrust visible in the short term, but it offers little in the way of cooperation on security matters in Europe.

Russia and the countries of the European Union, says Titov, will have to eventually address “how to actually build European security with a Russia that is not playing by the same rulebook and which has a different set of values and motives.

“I don’t think anybody knows the answers, but these are larger, long term issues that people need to start thinking about.”