Expulsion of a Russian diplomat from Ireland – a prudent move?

Ireland’s expulsion of a Russian diplomat undermines our neutrality

Vladimir Putin with the World Cup trophy.

Tuesday two weeks ago, the decision was taken by the government to expel one of the seventeen Russian diplomats currently stationed in Ireland. This move follows a wave of similar expulsions across the Western world in response to the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. Both were in a critical condition after the attack in Salisbury in March.

The case for this decision is easy to make. As an attempt on the life of a British citizen, in the course of which other British citizens were carelessly put in harm’s way, the attack was a blatant violation of Britain’s sovereignty. Russia’s reckless use of a military-grade nerve agent is also a cause for serious concern. This attack can be seen as part of the pattern of worryingly aggressive behaviour that has come to characterise the international presence of Putin’s Russia.

The UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats on March 20 in retaliation. Last Tuesday, Ireland has joined the twenty-plus countries that have similarly expelled Russian diplomats in solidarity with Britain.

Britain is our next door neighbour and arguably one of our closest allies. That we would offer this show of solidarity seems like the obvious and right choice to make. However, one does wonder if it was the most prudent decision.

There is a degree of impotence in the expulsion of diplomats as a response. Russia certainly won’t be too upset about the West righteously throwing out its diplomats. Their response looks likely to consist of tit-for-tat retaliation against countries who took action against them.

So the West will get rid of some Russian diplomats, Russia will get rid of some Western diplomats and all that will be achieved is poor communication and an even more tense Russo-Western relationship – a relationship that is feeling steadily more chilly, if as of yet a while away from a full-blown Cold War.

To let as aggressive an action as the Salisbury poisoning slide was never an option for Britain – whether there are other, more effective punishments they could have inflicted on Russia is another matter. There has been some noise about expelled diplomats being involved in Russian intelligence gathering, but seeing as Ireland has expelled only one diplomat, it seems to be more of a symbolic gesture than a move to break up covert Russian spy rings.

The expulsion of a Russian diplomat is rather to show solidarity with Britain, or if you want to be cynical about it, to ensure we keep up with rest of the EU pack. In terms of reinforcing bonds of friendship with our Western allies, participating in the throwing out of Russians certainly makes sense. Showing solidarity with our neighbour seems like the most appropriate option. However, is expelling a diplomat the best way to do this?

Expelling a diplomat clearly nails Ireland’s flag to the post. It links us to the hegemonic military alliances in Europe. There was never, of course, any doubt about where Ireland’s political sympathies lay, but this measure exists somewhat uneasily alongside our official neutrality. Ireland is a member of the EU, but the EU is a political union, not a military one. We are not a member of NATO. We are not a member of any military alliance and there is nothing wrong with this.

Neutrality makes a lot of sense for a small country like Ireland. We are never going to be able to wield any huge influence on the grand stage of international affairs. In many ways, it is better if we keep our noses out of where they don’t need to be and let the heavyweights slug it out amongst themselves.

Of course what Russia did is wrong, but we have not been silent on their attack. It has been reported that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar joined forces with French President Emmanuel Macron to push for a toughening of the EU’s language in response to the incident. As part of the EU, our disapproval will also be voiced through the recalling of the EU ambassador from Moscow.

However, the government felt the need to act on a national level too and thus a diplomat will be expelled. We could have used our neutrality as an excuse to keep one more line of communication with Russia open. Instead, we find ourselves firmly allied with the Western European hegemons in what is the diplomatic equivalent of “I’m not talking to you anymore!” as Russia skulks around the outskirts of the playground.

It is a futile action that achieves little more than a sense of moral superiority for the West, at the cost of driving us further into the dire straits that Russia has steered us into. It must be reiterated that we cannot stand by and let Russia do as it pleases with no consequences. But surely there is a better way of dealing with them than this.