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Explainer: Why has Ireland not yet expelled its Russian ambassador?

There have been widespread calls to boot out diplomats, but keeping them in place is part of an EU wide approach.

a-protester-holds-a-sign-outside-the-embassy-of-russia-after-it-was-defaced-with-red-paint-during-an-anti-war-protest-after-russian-president-vladimir-putin-authorised-a-military-operation-in-ukraine A protester outside the Russian embassy after it was defaced with red paint during an anti-war demonstration this week. REUTERS / Clodagh Kilcoyne via Alamy REUTERS / Clodagh Kilcoyne via Alamy / Clodagh Kilcoyne via Alamy

DESPITE AN AVALANCHE of demands from across the political spectrum, Ireland has yet to expel Russia’s ambassador or any of its diplomats over the war in Ukraine.

The calls for removing ambassador Yury Filatov from the embassy in Rathgar, Dublin, began as soon as Russia invaded its neighbour eight days ago.

Sinn Féin, Labour, the Social Democrats, Aontú and a host of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parliamentarians have all called for Filatov to be sent home.

The road outside the embassy has also been the scene of regular protests since the invasion began, with demonstrators chanting slogans calling for Filatov to be removed.

Another wave of fury was unleashed following the ambassador’s truculent display during an interview with David McCullagh on RTÉ News.

In an ill-tempered Dáil debate yesterday, Labour’s then-leader Alan Kelly said the RTÉ interview would “go down in history”.

“There is no way on this Earth, not just domestically, the Russian ambassador should stay in Ireland. What is the point in having diplomatic channels with somebody who lies? We cannot trust him. If he had said nothing, it would have been better,” Kelly told the house.

With all that anger swirling, the government has held firm to a wider European Union strategy of keeping ambassadors and diplomats in place, saying it will act in concert with the EU in deciding on expulsions.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has stressed the importance of maintaining diplomatic links, saying cutting ties was “the last resort”.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told Newstalk that expelling Filatov “might make us feel better for a while, but we would regret it for weeks and months after.”

A Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman said “there is value in keeping diplomatic channels open with Russia, not least to protect our interests and our citizens.

“Like all of the other responses we have deployed, we are coordinating closely with EU partners to ensure decisions have a meaningful impact.”

9365 Russia Conference The Russian Ambassador to Ireland Yury Filatov. Sasko Lazarov Sasko Lazarov

So, what’s the idea behind the EU approach?

Dublin City University foreign policy lecturer Professor Donnacha Ó Beacháin says calls for expulsions likely stem from the understandable emotional desire to do something to express revulsion at the actions of the Putin regime. 

However, the move can have negative consequences, particularly for Irish citizens in Russia, as the well-worn pattern shows that Russia will respond in kind to any expulsions that occur.

When Ireland joined a host of other nations in ousting a Russian diplomat following the Skripal poisonings in 2018, Russia, in turn, sent a member of Ireland’s Moscow embassy staff home.

“If we expel the Russian ambassador, or indeed the staff, it will be reciprocated,” Ó Beacháin explained.

“We have a very small embassy in Moscow compared to the one Russia has here. So, we would be essentially denying Irish citizens representation in consular advice in Russia.  

“I understand, there are quite a lot of Irish people who need help from the Irish embassy right now, considering the uncertainty of the situation. That’s one thing to bear in mind.”

Embassy functions

The foreign policy expert outlined that what the diplomats do in their day-to-day job is another important factor to consider.

One of the routine functions of an embassy is to regularly report back anything related to their home country that’s happening in their host country.

“You can be sure that everything that’s in the media here [about Russia], everything that’s being said, I’m sure even what’s appearing in The Journal, is all going back to the Kremlin as kind of evidence of the general sentiment. Therefore, I think it’s no harm that it’s being relayed back to Moscow.”

protesters-hold-signs-outside-the-embassy-of-russia-after-it-was-defaced-with-red-paint-in-dublin-ireland-february-24-2022-reutersclodagh-kilcoyne Protesters outside the Russian embassy in Dublin this week. REUTERS / Clodagh Kilcoyne via Alamy REUTERS / Clodagh Kilcoyne via Alamy / Clodagh Kilcoyne via Alamy

As the Russian embassy in Dublin has become the focus of demonstrations since the war began, Ó Beacháin speculates that ambassador Filatov would welcome the opportunity to return to Russia, if he could find a way to get there with the EU airspace closed.

I think there’s nothing more the ambassador would like than to find a way back and be sipping a brandy in Moscow, no longer having to face the fury of the Irish people. I think he’d prefer that.

“But he’s here and the embassy is therefore very much aware of the popular mood of anger in Ireland because of what’s being done in Ukraine. I think that’s good. I think that’s helpful.”

Despite this the DCU professor says the EU could send a clear signal of strength and unity to Putin by collectively dismissing all the Russian ambassadors while leaving the Russian ambassador to the EU in place.

“The Kremlin would retaliate by expelling all ambassadors from EU member states but the EU Ambassador to Russia would remain. 

“Ambassadors would go but embassies would stay, which would mitigate the problems regarding looking after citizens and reporting back sentiments of people in host states. Those of lower diplomatic rank at embassies would remain,” he said.

Ireland-Russia relations 

Ó Beacháin, who lectures on post-Soviet politics, says Irish and Russian people have always had a “very positive synergy” culturally, across many spheres.

However, the same is not true regarding relations between the Irish state and the Kremlin, which have long been “frosty” going back to the Cold War era.

“The embassy in Orwell Road in Rathgar is the very same embassy that was the Soviet embassy during the Cold War. They took down the flag and put up the Russian Federation flag in 1991,” he explained.

You go back to 1983, we expelled three Soviet diplomats because of a spy ring that was allegedly working out of the Stillorgan Shopping Centre, believe it or not.

“In 2010, when Micheál Martin was Foreign Minister, we expelled Russian diplomats because the Gardaí discovered – and this is a really bizarre phenomenon – the Embassy was cloning passports of Irish citizens.

“Anyone who was applying for visas to travel to Russia, they were cloning their passports, changing photographs and giving them for distribution to Russian spy operatives abroad.

“I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that relations have always been tense, frosty. Obviously professional and cordial, but never good.

“Therefore, I don’t think that this would damage what was a very positive relationship, it would only confirm what is a very poor relationship,” Ó Beacháin concluded.

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