18 June, 2021
by Hamish Cruickshank – Research Assistant
On the 23rd of May, Belarus committed what has been called a case of “state sponsored piracy”. Authorities used a bomb scare and a fighter jet to force a Lithuania-bound Ryanair flight to land in Minsk so that leading dissident Roman Protasevich could be detained. The incident has rightly drawn widespread condemnation. The US and the EU expressed their outrage over what had transpired with sanctions quickly ramped up and all air travel over Belarussian territory prohibited.
While Belarus appears to have once more burnt its bridges with the West, autocrat Alexander Lukashenko has again turned east for support and recently held a two-day summit with Vladimir Putin in Sochi. The Kremlin doubled down on its support for Lukashenko in light of the Ryanair-incident and the Russian President agreed to release $500m to Belarus by the end of the month – the second instalment of a $1bn financial package agreed in December. A series of photographs of the two heads of state together were also circulated online portraying a strong relationship, between both individual and state.
The strengthening of ties with Belarus stands in sharp contrast to the state of Russian relations with the majority of its other Western neighbours. A spate of sanctions and diplomatic expulsions of late has further diminished Moscow’s standing on the continent and strengthened the resolve of European states to resist Russian transnational interference.
Sanctions and expulsions
After the Salisbury poisonings in 2018 – when Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok by two Russian GRU agents – western states coordinated a mass expulsion of Russian diplomats, many of whom were suspected of being intelligence officers. A total of 29 states (and NATO) expelled over 100 diplomats in a robust response to what was an outrageous violation of international law. Russian-Western relations deteriorated considerably following this debacle and have seen little improvement since.
2021 has seen the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats since 2018. In February, Germany, Poland and Sweden expelled one Russian diplomat each after Moscow expelled a diplomat from each country in response to their participation in a rally in support of Alexei Navalny. Towards the end of march, two Russian diplomats were also expelled in Italy for committing “serious crimes tied to spying and state security.”
In April, further expulsions followed. On the 15th, the Biden Administration announced the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats and brought in new sanctions against Russian officials and businesses in retaliation to the Kremlin’s interference in the 2020 US elections and the SolarWinds hack. US financial institutions were also prohibited from purchasing rouble bonds in a hit to the country’s broader economy. These measures followed sanctions issued in March in response to the poisoning of Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny. In an act of solidarity Poland also declared three more Russian embassy staff ‘personae non gratae’.
Days later the Czech Republic expelled 18 members of staff, identified as intelligence officers, from the Russian embassy in Prague. Czech authorities allege that the two GRU agents involved in the Salisbury poisonings – Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga – were behind an explosion on 16th October 2014 that destroyed an arms storage facility near the Czech town of Vrbetice. Two men died in the blast and the incident was initially deemed to have been an accident.
However, after extensive investigative work by the Czech authorities, the finger was pointed at the infamous Unit 29155 of the GRU. Through cross matching images of the suspects, who had gained access to the site after posing as inspectors from Tajikistan’s National Guard, Mishkin and Chepiga were identified as the perpetrators. Motives behind the attack are less clear cut, but Czech media reports have suggested that arms and munitions at the depot were potentially being readied for dispatch to either Ukrainian forces in Eastern Ukraine or to rebels in Syria.
The Czech Republic informed its NATO and EU allies of its suspicions and Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamacek called on the country’s allies to also expel Russian embassy staff in a show of solidarity. Slovakia expelled three Russian diplomats, while Romania expelled one. The Baltic states also followed suit. Lithuania expelled two members of the Russian Embassy in Vilnius, while Latvia and Estonia expelled one Russian diplomat each.
The nature of the response
Moscow replied as one would expect – with reciprocal expulsions from respective embassies in Russia. 10 US diplomats were expelled from the country along with individual sanctions for eight current and former officials and a ban on US diplomatic missions hiring Russian workers, while 20 Czech diplomats were also declared personae non gratae. The US and the Czech Republic were also later labelled “unfriendly” states by the Russian government.
This episode is the worst diplomatic spat seen since 2018 and appears to have been a clear sign of a strengthened resolve in the West to take a firmer stance against Russian interference. The Kremlin has utilised a variety of tactics over the past few years to achieve its foreign policy objectives, ranging from covert military and intelligence operations to cyber-attacks and misinformation campaigns. Donald Trump showed little appetite for sanctioning the Kremlin while he was President and even sided with Putin over the FBI in Helsinki in 2018 regarding Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. The Biden Administration, however, has adopted a much firmer line and European states are evidently feeling more emboldened to push back against Russia’s malign tactics.
The spate of expulsions and sanctions seen over the past few months may also be indicative of a failing Russian foreign policy in Europe. Russian foreign policy has always been motivated by three primary drivers – the need for security and a strong buffer; the necessity to be recognised as a great power; and the need to maintain a pragmatic relationship with the West.
On all counts, one could argue that recent events have hindered these objectives. Russia’s presence on foreign soil has diminished further with the wave of diplomatic expulsions and sanctions, while Russia’s standing on the continent and its relations with states of the former Soviet Bloc is consistently reaching new lows. While Belarus may now be back in the Kremlin camp, the majority of European states are now taking a firmer stance against Russian interference on foreign soil and are enhancing efforts to keep their Eastern neighbour at bay.
Image: Secretary of State Antony Blinken poses for a photo with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Brussels, March 2021