Russian President Vladimir Putin

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

The 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian war is generally set as the commencement date of Contemporary International relations, which, as a special field of study carved out of Political Science, dates back to 1921, following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles by which World War I was partially concluded. As a result of the non-full settlement of the war and which prompted the renewal of German agitations which led to another world war in 1939-1945, the immediate genesis of which is traceable to the 1931 Manchuria crisis, the victorious allies decided to govern international relations in their own way and according to their cultures. Westernisation had the upper hand in protocol and etiquette. Western technology is also underscored to the detriment of that of other countries.

In fact, at the end of World War II, Soviet Union that fought on the side of the victorious allies, essentially France, United Kingdom, France, United States, who brought the Axis powers (Germany Italy and Japan) to their knees, withdrew from the understanding with the other victorious allies and began to seek power equality with the United States. Without jot of doubt, Soviet Union and the United States emerged super powers as a result of their global reach politically, economically and militarily. The emergence was to the extent that it led to superpower and Cold War rivalry. Cold War is about doing anything, with the exception of use of hard force, to undermine the interest of the other. This is why arms race, quest for atomic power status, emphasis on the application of the principle of reciprocity all gained ascendance in international relations in the post-World War II era.

Perhaps most interestingly, in the application of reciprocity rule, recourse to the application of retorsion, more than reprisal, was the hallmark of the Cold War era (1945-1989). Reciprocity is about tit-for-tat in the context of Cold War politics. In international economic relations, it is more about concession of gains, mutual benefits, as espoused in the most-favoured nation clause. In the context of Cold War, and particularly within the context of the principle of legitimate self-defence, if a country is a victim of unwarranted attack, assault, etc, and the victim state decides to retaliate using force, such reaction is referred to as a reprisal, but when it is simply limited to the diplomatic level and there is no use of force, it is referred to as retorsion.

Cases of retorsion include placing restriction on the movement of diplomatic agents, stoppage of development assistance, diplomatic protests which can include the declaration of accredited diplomats as personae non gratae, meaning unwanted persons, not wanted because of ungratefulness, because of non-appreciation of one’s stay in the host country. With the declaration of an individual as a persona non grata, it means the right of stay, the privileges and immunities to which the person hitherto had been entitled and enjoying are no longer guaranteed. In fact, the names of personae non gratae are removed from the register of accredited diplomats in the host country, and therefore, any diplomatic mission dealing with such persons is also doing so illegally and to its own peril.

This is precisely why the declaration of an accredited diplomat as persona non grata is quite interesting from many perspectives. It has its beauty, especially from the angle of self-fulfilment and exercise of sovereign right. It also has its ugly dimension, particularly from the perspective of the right of reply and measured reciprocal sanction. Reciprocity begets counter-reciprocity. Counter-reciprocity similarly gives birth to a new round of reactions, so there is no end to actions and reactions when it starts and that is why there is always the need for hard thinking on the implications in the long run before embarking on any punitive action in international relations, especially when such punitive measure is at the level of sovereign states, and particularly when such member is not only a powerful one, but is also a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council. This point now brings us to the issue of the alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, which has prompted the United Kingdom to declare 23 Russian diplomats personae non gratae in the United Kingdom, as well as prompting other similar solidarity sanctions against Russian diplomats in various European capitals in the past one week.

Issues in Personae Non Gratae

Declaration of any individual as persona non grata is not only an act of reaction, but also a resultant of political misunderstanding. It is always an unfriendly act that also attracts another unfriendly act. More often than not, it is always an expression of protest and show of strength. In fact, it is always done to test the ability and capacity of the government of the unwanted diplomats, and by so doing, to enable strategic recalculations. The British declaration of some Russian diplomats as personae non gratae and the similar solidarity sanctions is necessarily political.

The declaration of Russian diplomats in many European capitals as personae non gratae, in solidarity with the United Kingdom is a good illustration of the quest for show of political power and diplomatic braggadocio and to which Russia is also responding with a diplomatic right of reply even if the right is in promotion of a policy of error of terror. Attempting to poison and kill a foreigner on a British soil is an error of misjudgement and calculation. It raises the issue of interference in the domestic affairs of the United Kingdom. Russia does not have the right of interference even if Sergei Skripal is a Russian. He is by reason of legal residence under the protection of the United Kingdom.

In the same vein, interference, using brutish approach, such as poisoning, raises the issue of fundamental rights. The brutish approach is necessarily terroristic in design and execution. Thus, the issues involved clearly suggests an initial terror of error, as well as error of terror at the level of Russian policy decision, if it is true that the poisoning of Sergei Skripal was by Russia.

Admitting that the allegations against Russia is true, the first issue involved, and which serves as the main rationale for personae non gratae, is Russia’s foreign policy objective in the area of relevance and leadership in international affairs, especially having been a great power in the 19th Century. This is the very foundation on which other Russian sub-policies are built. Russia’s objective explains, at least, in part, the rationale for the extensive scope of Russia’s diplomatic network.

For instance, Russia’s diplomatic network covers 145 countries. In terms of breakdown, Russia has 242 diplomatic posts in the world, of which 143 are embassies, 87 are consulates and 12 are other diplomatic missions: cultural centres, information offices, trade offices, etc. With 242 diplomatic posts, Russia is internationally ranked number four in the world, by the Lowy Institute’s 2017 Global Diplomacy Index, thus coming after the United States, China, and France whose diplomatic network is more. In the United States alone, Russia does not have less than 116 diplomats in Washington and not less than 50 officers in its Permanent Mission and the 3 consulates in New York. Additionally, Russia has a personnel of 60 people, including diplomatic agents in Belgium.

The current foreign policy of seeking an active presence in Europe and America appears to carry the message that conduct and management of global affairs must always reckon with Russia’s interest and position. Russia is therefore reacting to the aftermath of perestroika and glasnost which eventually led to the demise of the Soviet Union and whose shoes Russia stepped into at the level of the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. Russia’s ambition in international relations is a major dynamic of the new Cold War that the world is currently witnessing.

A second issue is the question of spying and loyalty. The problem underlying the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a 66-year old Russian national, and his 33-year old daughter, Yulia Skripal, cannot be separated from the fact that Sergei Skripal was a former spy for either the former Soviet Union or for the current Russia. In 2006, Sergei Skripal was jailed for treason. In 2010, he was pardoned and released within the framework of spy-swap. It was on this basis that he had the freedom and opportunity of going to the United Kingdom to resettle down. Spying for Russia and as a Russian is not, stricto sensu, the direct problem but because the act of spying is tainted with double standard. Sergei Skripal allegedly operated as a double agent, which raises the other side of the coin: loyalty.

In the eyes of Sergei Skripal, he was far from being a traitor, arguing that the oath of allegiance he swore to, was not for Russia but for his ‘socialist motherland, the Soviet Union.’ Put differently, there is the need to differentiate between the former Soviet Union and Russia that took over the reins of Soviet Union.

What is particularly noteworthy about this matter is that Sergei Skripal has reportedly showed interest in returning to Russia and has actually requested for permission from the Government of Russia but which denies such claim. As noted by one of his classmates, Vladimir Timoshkov, Sergei Skripal regretted being a double agent because his life has now been messed up. However, he still denied the allegation of betraying his country, even though he is asking for ‘complete forgiveness.’

Many questions can be asked at this juncture: if he really had not betrayed Russia, why was the United Kingdom interested in his swap and his eventual accommodation in the United Kingdom? This question is necessary in light of a possible assumption that Sergei Skripal’s trial and conviction might have been biased. After conviction and swapping, as well as long stay in the United Kingdom, what explains the desire to want to return to Russia? Is this not a new betrayal of trust at the level of the British people? Perhaps more interestingly, is the United Kingdom more interested in protecting Sergei Skripal as a spy working for it or because of the belief that Russia accusatively committed the crime of poisoning on its territory?

A third issue is the application of the rule of reciprocity and the implications for the innocent diplomats. Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found on a bench, collapsed and weakened, around 4.15 pm on Sunday, 4th March, 2018 at the Maltins Shopping Centre in Salisbury, United Kingdom. Before they were found there, reports have it that they had been at the Zizzi restaurant. They were later taken to the Salisbury District Hospital for intensive care.

On the basis of various scientific and forensic investigations, the British Police made it clear on March 8, that the highest concentration of the poisoning agent used on Sergei Skripal and his daughter was found on their front door on Christie Miller Road. In the thinking of the British government, there is no way the Russian government would not have been responsible. Russia has vehemently denied any involvement in the allegation and has even accused the United Kingdom of being the one responsible for the poisoning.

The British and their allies did not believe in the Russian denials, more so that the conduct and management of international relations is fraught with lies and denials. As the whole world is currently fighting terrorism, no one is denying the existence of state terrorism. In fact, which country does not have spies working for it? Without doubt, politics is at play at all levels.

In protest against the alleged involvement of Russia in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Britain decided to declare 23 Russian diplomats as personae non grata and many other countries decided to sanction Russia in solidarity. For instance, the United States expelled 60 Russian diplomats (48 from the Washington office and 12 from the New York Permanent Mission). It is the highest number by any country so far. Britain followed with 23, Ukraine followed with 13, while the NATO as an organisation followed with the expulsion of 10 Russians. France, Germany, Poland and Canada expelled 4 Russian diplomats each while the number was restricted to 3 each in Czech Republic, Lithuania and Moldova; and to 2 in Denmark, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Albania, and Australia. Other sanctions were limited to the expulsion of one Russian diplomat in Estonia, Croatia, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Romania, Sweden, Norway, Macedonia, Ireland and Belgium.

As the NATO and EU countries do not have a monopoly of diplomatic sanctions, Russia has not only promised to reciprocate in the spirit of tit-for-tat but has actually expelled 60 US diplomats (58 in Moscow and 2 in Yekaterinburg) and closed the US Saint Petersburg Consulate. On Friday, 30th March, the ambassadors of countries that have expelled Russian diplomats were invited to the Russian Foreign Ministry, surely to be given reciprocal treatment. Canada and Australia were reported to be among.

With the tit-for-tat politics put in place, how is global security ensured? To what extent is the foreign policy interests of the sanctioning countries also better protected? Is there no alternative sanctionary measure to the declaration of diplomats as non grata? What is the new status of personae non grata in the event they were to be deployed to other countries, and especially when innocent diplomats who are not accomplices to offences are also declared unwanted?

The immediate and long term objective of sanctioning Russia is to weaken the capacity of Russia in its intelligence gathering efforts in NATO and EU countries. The NATO Chief, Jens Stoltenberg, not only made it clear that Russia’s alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy on a British soil has ‘costs and consequences for its behaviour,’ but also
noted that ‘the practical implication of course is that Russia will have a reduced capability to do intelligence work.’

As true and possible as this may be, there is no disputing the fact that the European countries are unnecessarily underestimating the implications of their policies of personae non grata at the level of other powerful countries like Russia and China, relationship with which the United Kingdom and United States must be more careful for many reasons. When the United States sanctioned Russia in mid-2017 following allegations of Russian annexation of Crimea, Russia simply declared 755 members of staff of US diplomatic mission in Russia unwanted, even though many of such staff were locally recruited Russians.

Besides, Russia is denying any involvement in the allegations levied against it and has asked for ‘consular access to Yulia Skripal and a meeting with leaders of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to establish the truth.’ Apart from Russia’s response of tit-for-tat, closing down the British Council and expelling 60 American diplomats, it has opted to test its new nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), called hypersonic Sarmat ICBM, or Satan 2, for the second time on Friday. 30th March, 2018 at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, a space port in West of Russia.

In polemological terms, why is the Russian test taking place at this material time? Why is nuclear missile test acceptable for Russia and not for North Korea? Is Russia not sending a message to Europe and America of its readiness to damn the costs and consequences of the politics of personae non grata? To what extent can the making of an entente between Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Donald Trump of the US be possible? Can the US cope with a Russian-North Korean nuclear alliance in the maintenance of international peace and security? More important, can the rapprochement between Seoul and Pyongyang lead to the dismantlement of North Korean nuclear projects? What if Russia undermines the supply of gas to Europe?

True, declaration of diplomatic agents personae non grata as an instrument of tit-for-tat policy has its beauty and its ugly aspects. The beauty is not more than the self-satisfaction derived from the mere declaration and execution of it. The aspect of ugliness is the reactive measures often taken by the first victim. Put differently, Russia’s relationships have the potential to be more difficult in the near future. The way the US used what it had to contain Japanese excesses at the close of World War II may not be different from a future Russian and even North Korean response in the event of uncontrolled anti-Russia and anti-North Korea politics.

The underlying cardinal truth about the sanctions against Russia is power, power tussle, a power-driven protection of the national interest. Power versus power creates a friction. A frictions demands an urgent understanding of the matter in order to prevent its deterioration into a political crisis and military conflict. International questions, as at today, are pointing to the possibility of use of nuclear arms, and therefore of likely deepening global insecurity. There is therefore the need for greater caution, especially in light of the announcement on Friday 30th March by Donald Trump that the United States would be withdrawing its troops from Syria and other areas so that other countries would be allowed to take over the responsibility of United States.

And true enough, Russia is a strong supporter of Syria. United States’ future withdrawal from the country is nothing more than leaving Russia with a field day to do and undo whatever it so decides. Perhaps most importantly, the United States is saying it is going to shirk its international responsibility in the maintenance of international peace and security? In concluding, we may ask: is this the manner the United States is to be made great again by Donald Trump? Time will tell.