Opinion: the expulsion by western states of Russian diplomats will inevitably lead to similar retaliation from Moscow, but there may be other repercussions to come

The stage-managed mass expulsion of Russian diplomats by western states has created a highly effective piece of political theatre. Demonising Putin’s Russia is proving to be a boon for British Prime Minister Theresa May and her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in comparison with their squirming through Brexit negotiations.

The stated reason for the expulsions is the British government’s allegation of Russian state involvement in the chemical poisoning attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the town of Salisbury. But as yet, no evidence has been produced to support this allegation. The British police investigation is ongoing and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has yet to deliver its verdict on the poison’s possible composition or source.

In a crudely politically-motivated rush to judgement, the British government has pronounced the Russian state guilty, arguing there is no plausible alternative explanation. In truth, it is highly implausible that Russian President Vladamir Putin would have authorised such an operation.

From RTÉ Radio One's Drivetime, Martina Fitzgerald reports on the expulsion of a Russian diplomat from Dublin and the reaction of Russian Ambassador to Ireland, Yury Filatov

Skripal was a Russian intelligence officer who spied for the British. Arrested in 2006, he was only released in 2010 as one of a number of spies swapped with the west. The Russians had ample opportunity to make Skripal disappear when they held him, so why would the state risk further jeopardising its international standing with a bungled assassination attempt eight years later?

While Russian-Western relations have been in state of high tension since the Ukrainian crisis of 2014, the political fallout from the Salisbury incident is the last thing that Putin wants in advance of hosting this summer’s soccer World Cup, an event in which he has invested considerable financial and political capital.

While France, Germany and other EU members were initially reluctant to support Britain’s action, they allowed themselves to be persuaded by May’s claim that British Intelligence had information pointing to Russian guilt,  an intelligence assessment that is, as usual, shaped by a political agenda. It was false claims by western intelligence agencies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction that became the pretext for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ireland has declared its solidarity with Britain and expelled a single Russian diplomat from Moscow’s embassy in Dublin, allegedly motivated by security considerations, not politics.

From RTÉ Radio One's This Week, Steven Lee Myers, former Moscow Bureau Chief of the New York Times and author of The New Tsar - the Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, discusses the Russian president's consolidation of power

But when Russia retaliates and expels western diplomats from Moscow, it will use the pretext they are involved in nefarious intelligence operations. In some cases, this may be true. But in most cases, the individuals will be officials – diplomats or intelligence analysts - gathering information mostly from public sources. Within months, if not weeks, most of these expellees will be replaced by others doing much the same thing.

If an Irish diplomat is expelled from Moscow, it will likely be no more than a temporary inconvenience. But the danger comes from agitators in both Russia and the west who are eager to escalate the Skripal crisis into a new Cold War. 

Yet stoking the current tensions is in neither side’s interests: they are economically interdependent and have many mutual political and security interests, not least the need to defeat international terrorism.

If an Irish diplomat is expelled from Moscow, it will likely be no more than a temporary inconvenience

Ireland is a minor player on the stage of this unfolding drama and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar could and should choose to step back from this confrontation with Russia. Such a move would protect Ireland’s economic interests and help to safeguard the position of Irish citizens in Russia. It would certainly be a welcome relief from the melodramatics being practiced by the British government.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ