BY: ANDY LAUB
The rise of populism, with the election of more right wing parties in Europe, the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and an aggressive Russia, has led many international observers to proclaim the transatlantic alliance, which has been the bedrock of the liberal international order since World War II, to be dead.
However, on March 26th, 2018, a stunning display of unity as the United States, Canada, the EU, Ukraine and NATO all jointly announced the expulsion of several Russian diplomats believed to be intelligence officers. The move was a response to the March 4th poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England with an illegal chemical nerve agent; the two were found unresponsive on a park bench. British Prime Minister Theresa May, who spearheaded the initiative, said it was “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history.” Surprising some, U.S President Donald Trump, who has hesitated on his criticisms of Russia and its President Vladimir Putin, approved the largest of the expulsion of sixty Russian diplomats and also ordered the closing of the Russian Consulate in Seattle, Washington that is largely believed to be very involved naval intelligence activities. Russia, of course, responded in-kind expelling the same number of diplomats and closing the U.S Consulate in St. Petersburg. The Russian Foreign Ministry additionally summoned diplomats from those countries for meetings including the British Ambassador to Russia, Laurie Bristow and U.S Ambassador Jon Huntsman.
Russia has denied any involvement in the poisoning. Mr. Skripal currently remains in critical condition in the hospital while his daughter Yulia’s condition has improved– she can now talk and has been improving. British authorities are eager to speak with her and the Russian Embassy in London has requested consular access to speak with her as well. Remnant of the Cold War, this diplomatic fallout matches the Russian acts of aggression. President Putin, emboldened by the success of his aggression in Ukraine, Syria and interfering in 2016 U.S Presidential election, has been more brazen in his tactics as demonstrated by the poisoning of one of his own citizens not guilty of any crimes in Ms. Skripal. The violation of another country’s sovereignty and the brutality of the act committed rose to new levels tantamount to crossing a red line, where the transatlantic community took a strong, coordinated stance to send Vladimir Putin a clear message.
For Mr. Putin, this is nothing new. As a former KGB intelligence officer, patriotism is very important to him; in a recent documentary he said the one thing he could never forgive was “betrayal” and in a 2010 interview, he acknowledged Mr. Skripal was in his crosshairs. Sergei Skripal a former Russian intelligence official was a double agent, who was also working in Britain’s MI6 intelligence service; he was convicted and spent a few years in jail in Russia before being part of an exchange with the U.K. Critics may point to this diplomatic tit-for-tat as futile, but the importance in the unity and resolve of the transatlantic alliance’s response cannot be downplayed. It sent a clear message and established a red line. Had nothing been done, President Putin would have only been more emboldened to continue his acts of aggression in undermining democracies and violating other countries’ sovereignty. Mr. Putin does not like to be embarrassed on the world stage, and likes to be shown respect and project an image of strength. It’s hard to see how he does that in this situation with the international community united, with only a few outside his echo chamber believing his denials.
With the World Cup coming up in June in Russia and several countries’ political delegations beginning to pull out, it’s hard to see anyway Mr. Putin comes out the winner. If diplomatic moves continue in this manner, Russia will only be more isolated. The whole point of the liberal international order and transatlantic alliance are likeminded democratic countries working together to respond to global threats. As Prime Minister May recently said “President Putin’s regime is carrying out acts of aggression against our shared values…The United Kingdom will stand shoulder to shoulder with the EU and NATO to face down these threats.” Wedge issues such as trade and Brexit could momentarily be put on the back burner for the international community to respond to this more pertinent move by Putin’s Russia. The strong response may make him rethink his behavior in the future. While the transatlantic alliance has suffered setbacks, the latest show of unity shows it’s not dead yet.
Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and Multilateral Affairs Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.
Photo Credit: Executive Grapevine