Report

Russia Promises Retaliation After Western Expulsions

Moscow even turns to Twitter to ask which consulate to close.

The Russian flag flies in front of its embassy in Washington on March 26. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The Russian flag flies in front of its embassy in Washington on March 26. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Monday, the United States, 14 European Union countries, Canada, and Ukraine expelled Russian diplomats in a coordinated response to the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, prompting Russia to vow retaliation.

Monday’s move is apparently the largest-ever expulsion of foreign diplomats from the United States. The country also closed Russia’s consulate in Seattle, allegedly because of its proximity to a U.S. submarine base.

The move comes just weeks after the poisoning on British soil of Skripal, who spied for the United Kingdom, and his daughter. A police officer also was sickened in the attack, which involved a deadly nerve agent.

“The United States calls on Russia to accept responsibility for its actions and to demonstrate to the world that it is capable of living up to its international commitments and responsibilities as a member of the UN Security Council to uphold international peace and security,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Monday.

Most of the EU countries kicked out but a handful of diplomats. France, Germany, and Poland will each expel four; Lithuania and the Czech Republic are kicking out three each; and Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands are all sending away two. Canada joined in, too, kicking out four, and Ukraine is set to expel 13.

The United States expelled 60, including 48 members of the Russian Embassy and 12 alleged intelligence operatives from the Russian Mission to the United Nations, which Russians have reportedly been using as a spy nest for years.

“Here in New York, Russia uses the United Nations as a safe haven for dangerous activities within our own borders,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement Monday. “Today, the United States and many of our friends are sending a clear message that we will not stand for Russia’s misconduct.”

Mark Simakovsky, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, says that on top of last year’s closure of the Russian consulate in San Francisco, the latest move has restricted Russia’s presence in the United States, which will have commercial, intelligence, and diplomatic ramifications for Russia. “The administration didn’t have to go this far,” he says. “It should be seen as significant.”

But the coordinated move signifies that the United States, Canada, Ukraine, and the European Union stand together against Russia’s alleged attempts to destabilize their countries. But the joint effort also guarantees retaliation, escalates the situation, and comes at a time that is likely to offend not just the Kremlin but the Russian people.

Moscow already vowed to expel “no less than 60” U.S. diplomats. Simakovsky predicts that two-thirds will be from Moscow while the rest will be taken from consulates around the country. He also says he “wouldn’t be surprised if they chose to close maybe [the consulate] in Vladivostok,” a city in Russia’s far east — a sort of coastal diplomatic tit for tat.

Indeed, the Russian Embassy in Washington is currently polling Twitter as to which U.S. consulate should be closed. (Vladivostok is the first choice listed.)

That means both sides — Russia and the West — will have fewer diplomats working to lower tensions. “I think the challenge here is we’re in this world of signaling without talking to each other,” says Olga Oliker, a senior advisor and director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Another concern, along with retaliation, is that the expulsions may do little to change Russian behavior. “The U.S. has expelled Russian diplomats before, and it hasn’t deterred the Kremlin from continuing its destabilizing activities abroad,” Rachel Rizzo, a research associate for the transatlantic security program at the Center for a New American Security, wrote to Foreign Policy in an email. “It’s unlikely this time will be different.”

The move is also unlikely to dispel the Kremlin myth that the Western world is out to get Russia. After all, in this case, European and North American countries quite literally did coordinate against Russia.

“There is no doubt that the Kremlin will use the expulsion of diplomats to continue exploiting its ‘besieged fortress’ image, which, based on the results of the last elections, sells well,” says Maria Snegovaya, an adjunct fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

That is particularly true given the timing of the expulsions: On Sunday, a fire at a shopping center in the Siberian city of Kemerovo left at least 64 people, many of them children, dead.

Samuel Greene, the director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, suspects that perhaps there were too many countries involved to call off or delay the diplomatic expulsions a day after one of the deadliest fires in modern Russian history.

“That strikes me as a rather poor excuse, though,” he says.

Emily Tamkin is a foreign affairs reporter at BuzzFeed. She was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2016-2018. @emilyctamkin

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