Queen's Policy Engagement

Russia’s loss of credibility

Dr Alexander Titov looks at why Russia doesn’t deserve a ‘presumption of innocence’ over the Skripal affair, and why it’s dangerous for everyone else

Russia’s loss of credibility

Ever since the British government first accused Russia of the Skripals’ poisoning, Moscow has been complaining about ‘presumption of guilt’ applied to it by Western countries. Solidarity with the UK led to an unprecedented number of countries expelling Russian diplomats around the world.

Russia shouldn’t protest too much at being mistreated, as any trust in what it says has been destroyed over the last four years with at least three important events.

First, Putin first publicly denying, and them publicly confirming that there were Russian regular troops involved in the early stages of Crimea’s takeover by Russia in spring 2014.

Second, ‎Russia’s persistent and extraordinary elaborated effort to deny any responsibility for shooting down the Malaysian passenger plane over Ukraine in July 2014, even when there was clear evidence to the contrary.

Finally, its denial of any involvement in Litvinenko’s poisoning, even though there was clearly a traceable radioactive trail back to Russia and identified culprits, one of whom, Andrei Lugovoi, was subsequently elected to the Russian Parliament.

It would be obviously naive to expect Russia to admit to something like shooting down the plane or to the Litvinenko poisoning for a whole host of political, diplomatic and legal reasons, but its continued blatant ‘in your face’ insistence on its innocence, including the elaborate concoction of evidence, convinced no one and simply proved that Russia is habitually lying over important international matters.

Russia can’t brush it off as simply another instance of Western Russophobia either. There are concrete steps which it has taken that has fuelled resentment and distrust of Russia in the West. The first step towards normalisation would be to stop assassinating its defectors with exotic poisons which endanger the wider public to boot.


Country specific reasons

The unprecedented scale of explusions would not be possible, however, without specific reasons in three key countries.

First, Germany has openly cited hacker attacks on its parliament as a background reason for the expulsion. There was Russia’s attempt to stoke anti-immigrant feeling over an alleged rape of a teenage girl from the Russian speaking community in Berlin by Muslim immigrants, eventually proven to be false. And French President Macron seems to be welcoming the opportunity to act tough to establish his foreign policy credentials.

With Germany and France united in their resolve to push against Russia, it was almost inevitable for the most of the EU to follow suit. This shows how the Franco-German tandem is again the driving motor of the EU foreign policy, and will be even more so once the UK formally leaves the EU next year.

The US were already preparing more sanctions against Russia as part of Russian sanctions bill passed by the Congress last year, so the White House welcomed the opportunity offered by the Skripal case as an excuse for further escalation. The US expelling 60 Russian diplomats – more than all other nations combined – made it easier for other countries such as Canada and Australia to follow suit.


What next?

Expulsion by themselves will be easy for the Kremlin to parry by expelling a similar number of Western diplomats. To really worry Moscow, a tougher action will be needed. For example, there could be a lot more pressure on Germany to cancel the flagship Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, though Berlin will resist that given significant economic benefits to it from the project. The talk about going after Russian oligarchs in the UK and beyond is unlikely to worry Putin much as he would actually prefer if oligarchs spent more of their money in Russia. But other financial sanctions, envisioned in the US sanctions bill, would be extremely painful for Russia.

However, would Iran-style sanctions be workable against such a large and important country as Russia? As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it could paralyse the working of the UN. Moscow could also increase its military and economic cooperation with Iran, for example, by supplying it with more advanced air defence systems making a possible US military action against that country more risky. And it can undermine the economic embargo on North Korea and resist any further tightening of UN sanctions on that country.

On a more strategic level the Kremlin could abandon key arms control treaties such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) which prohibits their deployment on land. This treaty signed by Gorbachev and Reagan in 1987 was one of the key achievement of nuclear arms control at the end of Cold War. Russia could continue to build up its military around the Baltic states, escalate its involvement in Syria, or unfreeze the conflict in the Donbas. All these scenarios have a potential for open conflict with the US and NATO.

In the wider context of the complete breakdown of trust between Russia and the West, which goes back to so many unresolved issues from the end of the Cold War, and which in turn were exacerbated over the last four years to a very dangerous level, any incident, however small or accidental, has the potential to reignite the conflict with Russia at a new level. It is difficult to predict where it will stop as the outcome of every recent development is to escalate each other’s response with each new case.

Rhetoric coming from Western politicians such as Boris Johnson increasingly points to their belief that a regime change in Russia is the only possible resolution to the current impasse in relations. However, it’s seen very differently in Russia with Putin just winning another term with a biggest ever popular vote. And, more fundamentally, it would be a mistake to reduce Russia’s problem to one man in the Kremlin, rather than to appreciate wider structural factors driving Russian foreign policy such as its insecurity about NATO and the EU expansion, Russia’s complex national identity and the legacy of the Soviet collapse.

The current crisis raises deeper questions about European security. Can there be a sustainable long-term security in Europe in which Russia is not fully invested? How do you deal with a large neighbouring country that doesn’t share Western liberal values? What implications does the rise of Western illiberal populism have for relations with Russia? Can the latter be reduced to Russian meddling in Western democracy?

These questions go beyond the diplomatic expulsions over the Skripal affair. And at the moment there are no clear answers to them.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 


Dr Alexander Titov
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Dr Alexander Titov is a lecturer in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast. His research interests include Russian foreign policy, Russian politics, Modern European History, International Relations, Intellectual History and Nationalism.

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