The atrocious crime committed in Salisbury led to a massive avalanche of diplomatic expulsions unprecedented in the contemporary history of international relations. The UK leadership can now claim a major foreign policy victory — the display of solidarity with London was more than impressive. Short of becoming truly global, it mobilized most of NATO and EU members with the United States alone, expelling 48 Russians from their embassy in Washington and the consulate in New York. Another 12 working for the Russian Mission at the United Nations were expelled as well. Russia was not slow to reciprocate, expelling more than a hundred diplomats representing the United Kingdom, the United States, Ukraine, Germany, Poland, France, the Netherlands and many other predominantly Western countries.
Many questions remain about whether the British side has produced enough proof that the Russians have been officially or unofficially responsible for this outrageous act. Supporters of the coordinated Western demarche claim that finally, Vladimir Putin got what he really deserved, as he pursued his outrageous and highly destructive course. In their view, this unified action should deter the Kremlin from committing similar crimes in the future. Critics argue that in demonstrating its solidarity with London, the Western world acted on the shaky assumption that Russia has to be the villain by definition, and therefore there was no need to wait until the end of the Salisbury attack investigation. In other words, the Western decision was based on a biased political judgment, not on verifiable facts.
Let me, for a moment, put aside this very important and definitely not fully completed discussion and focus on the expulsions themselves. Though the ongoing expulsion is unprecedented in its scale and geography, it is a well-established and frequently used foreign policy tool. In many ways, expulsion is very attractive — the public generally likes it, it has no consequences on business, and the executive power does not need to have it approved by the legislature. Expulsion is perceived as something that can be easily reversed if the relationship gets better. However, there are at least four questions, which challenge the conventional wisdom about efficiency of expulsions as a foreign policy tool.
Who are the expelled officers?
The standard narrative behind the expulsions implies that we are not talking about diplomats here, but about undeclared intelligence officers working under the disguise of diplomats. Their expulsion should eliminate or strictly limit the damage being inflicted by these quasi- diplomats upon national security of the host country. However, if the host country has strong evidence, or at the very least a reasonable suspicion that a diplomatic mission serves as a shelter for intelligence officers, and if their operations are causing serious harm to that country’s security, why wait for the latest political crisis to expel them? On the other hand, if you expel intelligence officers working through the official diplomatic mission, your adversary is likely to put more emphasis on working through ‘Illegal’ operatives, not under diplomatic cover, or on operatives making short visits to your country. You do not need to be James Bond to figure out, who is more difficult to track and to follow.
Who is going to suffer?
The impact of symbolic expulsions is likely to be very limited — if you expel one or two diplomats, their workload can be routinely distributed among those who stay. If you expel a couple of dozen, you can hardly fill personnel the vacuum left by the expulsion. If you close a well-staffed consulate serving large regions of the host country, you create long-term problems for many people, who have nothing to do with the political leadership — such as students, scholars, executives, civil society leaders, journalists, tourists, Diasporas, and so on. Of course, you can argue that the US Consulate in St. Petersburg is more important for Americans than the Russian Consulate in Seattle for Russians, but this is a poor consolation. The shrinking of diplomatic presence has significant negative long-term repercussions on both sides.
What do the sides expect to accomplish?
Expulsions are usually presented as ‘deterrence by denial’ by making it harder for the other side to engage in hostile actions against the host country in future. In other words, expulsions are not about ‘deterrence by punishment’ by imposing on the adversary a high cost for the perceived hostile actions. This is exactly why expulsions seldom work — neither the recipient side nor the initiating side are supposed to pay a real price to make its case. For instance, the Salisbury attack has not resulted in visible financial measures against Russia, since these measures could have also negatively affected important British financial interests. Moscow reciprocated in the ‘tit-for-tat’ fashion that, in its turn, was a relatively painless and simple step to take. At the end of the day, we have a spiral of expulsions unwinding; both governments look strong and principled in the eyes of their respective constituencies, but a resolution of the crisis is completely out of sight.
What, if this is a false flag?
Imagine for a second that after a thorough investigation, it turns out that Russia has nothing to do with the assassination attempt in Salisbury. I understand that this outcome looks highly improbable to the overwhelming majority in the West, but just in case. How could we undo the expulsions that have already taken place? Or would both sides find other plausible justifications for what they have already done? Frankly, I am not sure that I will ever enter the building of the Russian Consulate in Seattle in my lifetime, even if the US — Russian relations started getting better.
When they do not know what to do, they do what they know. Whatever we think about expulsions as a symbolic act, a demonstration of solidarity or a signal to the other side, we should not fool ourselves — expulsions will never be a substitute for a sound long-term policy. They have never been. The sooner the spiral of expulsions is stopped, the better it is for all the sides involved.
First published in the American Herald Tribune.