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Why has Ireland ousted a Russian diplomat, and how significant is it?

“Expelling diplomats is ‘cheap diplomacy’,” one expert said. “It’s a low-cost way of reacting, and it doesn’t cost anything financially.”

Image: Photojoiner/Getty/RollingNews.ie

TODAY, TÁNAISTE AND Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney announced that he would expel a Russian diplomat over the poisoning of a double agent and his daughter in England last month.

Russian nationals Sergei Skripal (66) and his daughter Yulia (33) were found unresponsive on a park bench in Salisbury on 4 March after being poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent – the first attack of its kind since the Second World War.

This afternoon, Coveney said that he had met with the Russian ambassador and informed him “that the accreditation of a member of his staff with diplomatic status is to be terminated”.

In a spiraling diplomatic incident, the move to oust a Russian diplomat in solidarity with the UK has raised questions about the future relations with Russia, and the status of Ireland’s neutrality.

One expert in post-Soviet politics told TheJournal.ie that the move was significant, because even though this isn’t the first time Ireland has expelled Russian diplomats, it’s the first time it was done based on UK intelligence.

There is a risk that politics is running ahead of rule of law, which is always dangerous.

Here’s a quick recap of how we got here.

UK investigation

Following UK analysis, it was discovered that the chemical used in the attack had been developed by the Soviet Union during the late stages of the Cold War. This led the UK to believe that it was “highly likely” Russia was behind the attack, and gave them 10 days to respond.

Russia said this deadline was “absolutely unacceptable”.

After the deadline passed, the House of Commons was told that the Kremlin was “culpable” for the attack, and that the UK would expel 23 Russian diplomats.

No British royals or ministers will attend the World Cup in Russia, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced to Britain’s parliament.

“Many of us looked at a post-Soviet Russia with hope. We wanted a better relationship and it is tragic that President [Vladimir] Putin has chosen to act in this way,” May said.

They have treated the use of a military grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance.

She also said that Russian State assets would be frozen if there’s evidence that they were used to threaten the life or property of people in the UK.

Investigations Continue At The Scene Of Salisbury Spy Poisoning Police officers work at the scene of the poisoning. Source: Christopher Furlong

“There is no place for these people – or their money – in our country,” she said, prompting cheers from both government and opposition representatives.

Upon that announcement in the House of Commons, France, Germany, the US and EU leaders supported the sanctions taken against Russia.

“We, the leaders of France, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom, abhor the attack that took place against Sergei and Yulia Skripal,” said the statement issued by the British government.

This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War. It is an assault on UK sovereignty and any such use by a State party is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a breach of international law.

“It threatens the security of us all.”

Russian denials

The Kremlin said the accusation was “unforgivable”.

In response to the UK’s ousting of 23 suspected Russian spies, the Kremlin announced similar measures – expelling 23 UK diplomats.

It also ceased the work of the British Council in Russia, a body that promotes cultural and educational opportunities.

Vladimir Putin's election campaign headquarters Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov at Putin's election campaign headquarters. Source: Mikhail Metzel

“The position of the British side appears to us absolutely irresponsible,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists two weeks ago.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live last night, Russian Ambassador to Ireland Yury Filatov said that Ireland should put its interests first and “not someone else’s interest” which he said “might be the case”.

He said the two countries have a “huge amount of goodwill” and he did not see a need to ruin it.

The only thing I know for sure, from the onset of the whole incident on 4 March in Salisbury – the British Government has moved away from dealing with that in a responsible manner. So, they preferred to wage a propaganda campaign, unprecedented, surely.

File Photo The Government is today expected to announce the expulsion of one or more Russian diplomats from Ireland over the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, England earlier this month. End. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to Ireland, Yury Anatoliyevich Filatov. Source: Sam Boal

Ireland’s stance

Yesterday it was announced that more than 100 Russian diplomats would be expelled from 20 countries in North America and Europe. The US announced it would expel 60 diplomats, Ukraine said it would oust 13, while Canada, France, Germany and Poland announced it would kick out four each.

This put pressure on Ireland to announce similar measures, which it reciprocated with today.

“We’re at a very difficult point in European Union-Russian relations,” said Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes on Today with Sean O’Rourke this morning.

“This is a dangerous ratcheting up of Cold-War tensions and Ireland, which is meant to be neutral, should be taking no part in this,” TD Paul Murphy said prior to the announcement.

But a lecturer on post-Soviet politics, unrecognised states and Irish foreign policy disagrees.

“This is not a breach of Irish neutrality, neutrality has never meant not taking sides,” says Dr Donnacha Ó Beacháin, an associate professor at DCU School of Law and Government.

“People can argue we shouldn’t have taken a side, but that does not negate military neutrality. Facilitating the US army at Shannon Airport is much closer to breaching neutrality.”

Speaking to TheJournal.ie following the announcement, Ó Beacháin said that the expulsion wouldn’t affect Russian-Irish relations, as trade between the countries had halved in recent years.

Ireland is protected too, somewhat, by virtue of the fact that it is not acting unilaterally but as part of a coordinated effort, primarily in our capacity as an EU member.

But he did question why the UK, Ireland and other nations chose to act against Russia over this issue, and why they chose to discipline the Kremlin the way that they did.

“Expelling diplomats is what one might call ‘cheap diplomacy’. This is a very low-cost, predictable way of reacting, and it doesn’t cost anything financially.

[The UK, EU and Ireland] didn’t choose actions that would actually hurt the Kremlin, like reducing importation of Russian oil and gas, where it would be very painful difficult to find different sources of energy, in the short-term at least.

He said that he’d argue this isn’t the most effective way of taking a stand against Russia.

“Going after Russian money invested in European financial centres, not least in London: those are real weapons, but would involve major losses for some EU states. What’s been chosen instead is rather symbolic.”

We’re not even expelling ambassadors, we’re expelling staff members that can be easily replaced. I think it’ll be seen by Russia for what it is: letting off steam.

The action taken by the UK government in this case contrasts with its response following the death of a former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 after being poisoned with polonium.

“Theresa May, while she was Home Secretary, stalled on public enquiry into his death, and the rationale was that it would hurt UK-Russian relations. The irony was that it was opened in 2014 when those relations were at their lowest – after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some would argue that she’s got something to prove.”

He said that after that annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ireland didn’t expel a diplomat then, “and that was far more important”.

The last time Ireland did expel a Russian diplomat was in 2010, when it was revealed that six Irish passports were cloned by the Kremlin to be used by Russian spies.

He said that it’s interesting that Ireland is choosing to rely on the information from the British government, who themselves “have a long history of espionage, not least in this country”.

“There is a risk that politics is running ahead of rule of law, which is always dangerous.”

It’s very popular in Russian media to say that the British did this themselves to create a united front in Europe.

That echoes the comment of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said that the case was a distraction from the UK’s Brexit troubles.

“That’s a natural reaction – Russia are extraordinarily adept at denying an action until it’s too late to do anything about it.”

Read: Coveney says Ireland will ‘show solidarity with closest neighbour’ over Russian diplomats expulsion

Read: Britain, France, the US, and Germany united in ‘abhorrence’ over first nerve agent attack in Europe since WWII

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