Ever since Russia launched its military action in Ukraine on February 24, Europe has taken a tough stance against Moscow to punish it for the allegedly “unjustified” invasion that could have been easily prevented if diplomacy had been conducted in good faith. Russia’s security demands were not taken seriously, and Ukraine’s membership in NATO was not publicly ruled out.
Instead, the West embraced a cynical position. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was told that his country is “not going to be a NATO member, but publicly, the doors will remain open.”
With that in mind, the current concerted efforts to label Russian diplomats personae non gratae and expel them from Europe are the unfortunate continuation of this disturbing trend of un-diplomacy in the Old Continent’s capitals.
The witch-hunt started on March 29, with Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland leading the way (and Eastern European countries such as Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic firing the first shots).
However, the real onslaught on the Kremlin’s diplomats coincided with outrage over the alleged atrocities committed by retreating Russian forces on the civilian population of the Ukrainian city of Bucha – although on March 31, the city’s mayor, Anatoly Fedoruk, confirmed there were no Russian forces in the area, and most importantly did not mention any casualties shot in the streets.
Despite this fact, the verdict has been made, and the UK – which currently holds the UN Security Council’s presidency – “flagrantly violated” the UNSC’s procedures by not only dismissing a Russian request to hold a meeting to discuss this critical matter and serious accusations vis-à-vis Moscow, but also made a quite shocking statement suggesting Russia’s guilt – something that goes against the presumption of innocence and audi alteram partem (“listen to the other side”) principle of fundamental justice.
As was easy to predict, it did not take long to see the results. The domino effect of the diplomatic expulsions has followed.
“The images from Bucha testify to an unbelievable brutality on the part of the Russian leadership and those who follow its propaganda,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock commented in a statement issued on Monday.
That was the same day that the Russian ambassador to Germany, Sergey Nechayev, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to be told that 40 of his colleagues had been asked to leave the country on the grounds of, as Baerbock said, working “every day against our freedom, against the cohesion of our society.”
She added that her country would further expand sanctions against Russia, increase support for the Ukrainian military and contribute to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s eastern-flank capabilities.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Monday was quite a sad day for Moscow, as other European countries joined the chorus of cancel culture toward Russian diplomats.
In Lithuania, the Russian ambassador was asked to leave Vilnius after the country announced it was lowering the level of diplomatic relations with Moscow. At the same time, the Russian diplomat was informed that Lithuania’s ambassador to Russia would shortly return, and the closure of the Russian Consulate General in Klaipeda would follow.
Latvia also decided to lower its diplomatic ties with Russia, and 13 diplomats were told to leave the country. Moreover, it was announced that two Russian consulates, in Daugavpils and Liepaja, would be shut.
In Romania, 10 employees of the Russian Embassy in Bucharest were given five days to leave the country’s territory after being told “that their activities run contrary to the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961,” according to the Foreign Ministry’s statement.
Cancel culture continues
On Tuesday, Denmark asked 15 Russian diplomats to leave the country within the next 14 days on the alleged grounds of “espionage.” The same reason was provided by Sweden, which expelled three diplomats, with Foreign Minister Ann Linde further asserting with regards to the incident in Bucha, “It is obvious that war crimes have been committed.”
On the same day, and in a similar tone, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi announced the expulsion of 30 Russian diplomats, given three days to leave the country’s territory. The same template was used in France, where 35 diplomats were asked to return to Russia.
Notably, the European Union itself decided to send back to Moscow 19 employees of the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the EU in Brussels.
Tearing down bridges
These are only some of the cases of Europe’s diplomatic cancel culture toward Russia, with more than 300 diplomats being expelled so far. Moscow, however, remains steadfast in its conviction that strategic calm is better than excessive reaction to politically motivated choices aimed at shaming and punishing the country while at the same time depriving it of its ability to defend itself against increasing information attacks.
Narrowing space for diplomatic dialogue during such a dangerous crisis seems unwise and could easily backfire. One thing is certain: It is much easier to destroy diplomatic bridges than to build them. And at some point, there may not be enough will on all sides to pick up the broken pieces.