Anti-Kremlin roll call is weak
There is a fundamental flaw in the Russian propaganda narrative about the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Britain this month: it assumes that Western nations want to gang up on Russia and punish it regardless of whether there is any evidence linking it to the assassination attempt.
In reality, the Western response to the incident shows how reluctant European nations are to escalate tensions with Russia.
The diplomat expulsions announced on Monday were essentially a roll call of Russia’s adversaries, a rare insight into how European leaders’ discussions of punishing Russia go behind closed doors. Usually, only terse statements emerge from these discussions, and leaks do not provide a complete picture of who hesitated to support the latest round of sanctions and who came along easily. Now, there is a full picture; one could even draw a rather realistic Russia hostility scale if one divides the number of diplomats each European Union country expelled by its trade turnover with Russia.
Britain, on whose territory a deadly chemical compound was used, understandably took the toughest stand. Although other countries’ leaders expressed solidarity at a European Union summit late last week, none was willing to come close to the 23 diplomats it expelled. The maximum from other European countries was four: Germany, Poland and France went that far; considering their relatively strong business ties with Russia, though, that is hardly a huge number.
Ireland, which has nothing to gain by antagonising Britain during sensitive border talks, Croatia and the traditionally anti-Russian Baltic nations of Lithuania and Estonia were also willing to join expulsions — to be undoubtedly met with a tit-for-tat response from Russia.
They are followed by the Czech Republic — a special case since, in its blame-shifting zeal, Moscow suggested that the nerve agent used on the Skripals could have been produced in former Czechoslovakia. “The Russians crossed the line when they identified the Czech Republic as the possible country of origin of the Novichok nerve poison,” Prime Minister Andrej Babis tweeted as he announced the expulsion of three Russians.
The Russian foreign ministry can notch this up to its own clumsiness: had it not been for its wild flailing, Babis would not have been as eager given the Russia-friendliness of his ally, President Milos Zeman.
Other nations answered the roll call — led, of course, by the United States with 60 expulsions — with token gestures. One look at the enormous, fortresslike Russian embassy compound in Berlin should be enough to understand that the four diplomats Germany is sending away do not amount to much as a percentage of the vast Russian representation there or relative to the mutual trade volumes. Chancellor Angela Merkel may have helped British Prime Minister Theresa May not to feel rejected at the summit, but her actual response to the Skripal situation is reserved rather than enthusiastic. And the decision by the Netherlands to expel two Russians shows that the trading nation appreciates the massive amount of business it does with Russia, including as the corporate home to some of Russia’s biggest companies.
Then there are the ten EU nations that did not expel anyone at all. There are no big economies among them, and countries such as Malta, Luxembourg or Cyprus have a good excuse not to join the action: their Moscow embassies are not lavishly staffed, and the inevitable tit-for-tat would seriously hurt their representation. But countries such as Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria and Greece could afford to show some solidarity. They decided, however, that signing a harsh statement at the summit — according to which, the European Council “agrees with the United Kingdom Government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible and that there is no plausible alternative explanation” — was all they wanted to do.
“As a neutral country, we will not be expelling any diplomats,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz tweeted. “What’s more, we want to be bridge-builders between East and West, and keep negotiating channels to Russia open.”
Finland and Sweden, of course, were not deterred from expelling diplomats by their own neutral status. Kurz’s People’s Party, however, is in coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, which has a co-operation agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia. If Italian populists, all pro-Russian to some extent (Matteo Salvini’s League also has an agreement with United Russia), manage to form a working government, the expulsion of two diplomats from Italy will be the last of that country’s response to the Skripal crisis.
Bulgaria and Greece, for their part, decided against doing anything until they are shown more proof that Russia is behind the Skripal poisoning. “While there is high likelihood but no evidence, we cannot decide on the matter,” was the way Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov put it late last week.
It is a paradoxical situation. The clear reluctance to confront Russia in any meaningful way shows that European leaders are not out to get Putin. They do not really want to believe Russia poisoned the Skripals, they are just compelled to accept the most obvious explanation for the poison attack: that it was a cheeky Russian operation to punish a traitor and test the West’s response to another blatant breach of written and unwritten rules.
European leaders are a pragmatic bunch. At the same time, the lack of appetite for confrontation with Putin precludes a serious response. The EU must vote unanimously on sanctions, and the unanimity just is not there.
Further action on the Skripal case by Europeans is only likely if new evidence emerges of the Kremlin’s direct involvement. It is not a given, however, that a smoking gun — the kind that makes front pages across Europe — will emerge, or, at any rate, emerge soon. For now, Putin can relax, although the Russian version mill will be running full steam in any case.
•Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru
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