In a little over four years, Russia has become increasingly belligerent towards the West, hitting a new milestone, which is interesting, to put it mildly: three hundred and eleven (!) Russian diplomats have been expelled from the United States and Europe due to their actions in these states, the French daily “Le Monde” writes.
Moscow not only fueled a number of disputes in these countries, but actually took direct and unconstrained action behind the scenes, from interfering with the election process in some states, assassination and military sabotage, to other activities bordering terrorism. All that has led to the expulsion of a number of diplomats considerably larger compared to the 1971-1991 period, according to the aforementioned source.
Within less than four years, more Russian diplomats have been expelled than during the hardest decades of the Cold War. In recent years, Moscow’s actions have been consistent with conventional warfare, and the developments we’ve been witnessing on the Ukrainian border are the natural outcome of Russia’s illegal actions.
“The red lines” Putin was recently mentioning in his state of the union address have long been crossed by Moscow.
It all started when the former White House leader, Barack Obama, expelled 35 Russian diplomats in January 2017. Four years after the event, the number increased nine times in the United States and Europe.
The embassy spy
The latest episode in the expulsion saga occurred last week in Romania and Bulgaria, two states of strategic NATO importance in the Black Sea region. In a post on April 23, Russia’s ambassador to Bucharest, Valery Kuzmin, tried to taunt Romanian diplomacy, suggesting Russian diplomats are a sort of “gentlemen” compared to Europe and America’s diplomats in Bucharest, which he claims interfere to greater or lesser extents in Romania’s domestic policy.
Observing the divide and conquer logic, Kuzmin made a veiled threat, warning Romania not to engage in a military venture in the Black Sea together with NATO’s “hot heads”. This is not Kuzmin’s first such oversight, the Russian diplomat being known for his verbal aggression since his former assignment to Chișinău.
Since Romania has been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance for the last 14 years, and is arguably an important NATO pillar in the region, the response of the Romanian Foreign Ministry was swift and abrupt. “Let it be clear: any threat against Romania is a threat against NATO, and we are taking such matters very seriously”, the Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu said. The Romanian official reminded the Russian diplomat about Article 5 in the NATO Treaty regarding the Alliance’s collective defense.
Furthermore, in light of Kuzmin’s statements over the legality and legal framework of Russian diplomats in Romania, the Romanian Foreign Ministry proved the opposite. Mentioning his full name, Bucharest exposed Russia’s deputy military attaché in Bucharest, Alexey Grishaev, as a GRU spy. Grishaev attempted to recruit Government officials with access to sensitive information about Romania and NATO. And not just military information, but aspects regarding the economic and political life of Romania, which confirms Moscow is interested about everything happening in Romania, actively looking for loopholes to exploit, in times of need.
The Romanian media has published images and videos of Grishaev attempting to recruit Romanian officials.
Sabotage actions in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic
Shortly after the scandal in Romania, at the end of last week, Bulgaria announced the expulsion of another Russian diplomat. Sofia is suspecting six Russian citizens of having been involved in a number of explosions at four Bulgarian munition depots in the last 10 years.
Bulgarian authorities believe the explosions to have been the result of sabotage, linked to the almost lethal poisoning of Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev in 2015 and the 2014 explosion at an ammunition warehouse in the Czech Republic. Bulgaria had previously expelled another six Russian diplomats in March this year.
What we do know is that the weapons and munition from Bulgaria were supposed to reach Ukraine and Georgia. Russia had military interventions in both countries, maintaining frozen or smothering conflicts in Donbass and Luhansk (in eastern Ukraine) and in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (in Georgia).
In turn, some two weeks ago, on April 17, the Czech government expelled 18 Russian diplomats following an official inquiry that confirmed Russia’s participation in “the largest attack on Czech territory since the Prague Spring of 1968”, when Russian tanks entered the capital of Czechoslovakia.
The expulsions followed revelations attesting to the involvement of officers of Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU (unit 29155), in the explosion at the ammunition warehouse in Vrbětice, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has said.
Italy too has been the victim of Russia’s latest acts of espionage. The Biot case is very relevant in that respect - a Russian spy posing as a diplomat tried to buy classified information from an Italian officer about NATO and its actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The rift widens – what are the chances of a sitdown?
Whereas the Biden administration has taken up a hard line in its dealings with Russia, the EU has been trying to open up a dialogue. Yet Moscow disregarded Brussels’ white flag. The humiliation of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrel, in early February during his visit to Moscow, was a signal that Russia has declared war on Euro-Atlantic space. In fact, the EU adopted a new series of sanctions in March on Russian officials in response to the imprisonment of Russian opposition Alexei Navalny.
In turn, Russia responded with sanctions of its own against eight European officials, including the president of the European Parliament, David Maria Sassoli, who has been barred from Russia. The European Union reacted, saying Russia’s sanctions are groundless, and the EU’s spokesperson for foreign affairs, Peter Stano, said EU Foreign Ministers will discuss EU-Russia relations in Brussels on May 10, as well as on the sidelines of the G7 summit in London, taking place over May 3-5.
Still, Russia has been toning down its verbal aggression against the West. Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergey Shoygu, recently announced the withdrawal of Russian troops amassed on the Ukrainian border. Putin too, in his latest state of the union speech, avoided any mention of military plans and a possible escalation of tensions in this region. On the other hand, the West has postponed excluding Russia from the SWIFT global banking system and the introduction of new restrictions on the purchase of Russian treasury bonds to cover the country’s public debt.
Despite its show of military strength, Russia remains dependent on global markets, and cannot afford a full-scale trade war with the West.
The key to Moscow’s relations with states in the Euro-Atlantic area will remain the Biden-Putin summit, set to take place in the near future. The two leaders are likely to put their cards on the table and discuss openly on matters of diverging interests. Even though childish “back-at-you!” rhetoric is bound to disappear, this won’t make all the problems go away.
The intrusion of the Kremlin’s invisible Red Army in the US election, as well as divergences in the case of Ukraine or the Middle East or the acts of sabotage in Europe at ammunition warehouses in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, are all matters Washington will not be too quick to overlook. On the other hand, Putin will be trying to capitalize on his hardline voters at home. The situation is far from being settled, although both camps have taken preliminary steps towards reconciliation. The odds thereof remain uncertain until the outcome of the election in the Russian Federation due this autumn.