[Perspective] The European game of expulsions

By Owei Lakemfa.

Serious diplomacy has this Easter Season, given way to the farcical drama of European countries expelling diplomats of their Russian brothers with the later retaliating. This week, 25 countries including non-European allies like the United States, Australia and Canada, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) had knocked out 158 Russian diplomats  with Russia absorbing the punches and throwing its own. There is the joke that American  President, Donald Trump was watching the CBS 60 Minutes programme when he was asked how many Russian diplomats should  be expelled, he looked at the screen, saw 60 Minutes and decided that 60 Russians should be expelled.

In descending  into Cold War politics, no shots have been fired, and may not be; it is actually more of shadow boxing. The ostensible reason for this street  musical   is the tragic attempted murder of  Russian double spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia who were on March 4,  found unconscious in Salisbury, Britain. Skripal was a Russian intelligence agent found guilty of “high treason in the form of espionage” and imprisoned in 2006 before being exchanged in 2010 for some Russians accused of spying in the US.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said the poison used was a  “military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia” and concluded that Russia was “highly likely” to have made the attempt.  Also, the attack bore resemblance to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko,  a former KGB agent who fled prosecution and took asylum in Britain. On  November 1, 2006,  he  fell ill and passed away twenty days later. The autopsy showed he had ingested poison; polonium-2010 and  the Russians were accused of administering it.

The Russians denied being behind the Salisbury attack and asked  the British for evidence beyond mere suspicion. An angry Britain responded by expelling 23 Russian diplomats, the latter  retaliated  expelling an equal number of British diplomats and shutting down the British Council.

As a non-actor in this drama, and examining Prime Minister May’s submission to the British Parliament this Monday  that no other country “has a combination of the capability, the intent and the motive to carry out such an act” I wonder if this is the same country that produced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his fictional smart detective ’Sherlock Holmes’ If it is true that the poison was the type produced in Russia, is there no possibility that a third country or party could have used it knowing that Russia will be blamed?

As it is, Britain has no conclusive proof, no evidence, and makes no presumption of innocence; it simply found Russia guilty, probably on the basis of the  latter’s ‘bad boy’ image. It is like a crime committed in a neigbourhood and the police asks itself ‘who is the bad guy around’ and concludes that he is not just the suspect, he is in fact guilty. There is a saying  that if  the witch cries in the night, and the child dies in the morning, who does not know that it was the witch that killed the child? For good old fashioned Britain, Russia is the witch; it must have carried out the attack.

Britain might have been quite distraught and emotional about the Salisbury attack, but how do you explain the herd-like reaction of  over two dozen countries expelling Russian diplomats? Is it just a matter of siding with an ally even if its position is highly flawed or an attempt   by the European Union to show  Britain that it needs solidarity within a common union rather than Brexit?

The Euro-American outrage over the attack on Sergei Skripal is more political than a concern for human life. If this were not so, there should have been a similar wave of expulsion of Saudi Arabia diplomats for its atrocious bombings of social gatherings, hospitals and schools in Yemen which (according to the United Nations)  had by November 2017 resulted in 5,295 civilian deaths and 8,873  injured. Rather than call the Saudis to order and stop these war crimes, countries like United States and Britain have increased their weapon sales to the Saudis. ‘The Independent’ Newspaper reported that rather than caution the Saudis, Britain in the wake of the Yemeni  massacres, increased  the number of British-made bombs and missiles sold to Saudi Arabia  by almost 500 per cent with over  £4.6bn of arms  sold to the Saudis.

Perhaps the most honest admission that  the reasons for the expulsion of Russian diplomats is primarily political, came from the NATO Secretary-General,  Jens Stoltenberg who told the press that the Salisbury attack was a mere trigger; he lists some of the sins of Russia: We have seen the illegal annexation of Crimea, we have seen the destabilization of Eastern Ukraine, we have seen cyberattacks, we have seen hybrid tactics, we have seen Russia investing heavily in modern military equipment and the willingness to use military force against neighbours”

There is also the apprehension that Russia’s international image would be boosted by  its hosting the 2018 World Cup so there is need for Russia-bashing. Hence, amongst Britain’s ‘sanctions’ against Russia, is barring cabinet ministers and members of the royal family from  the World Cup. Also, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Boris Johnson revealed that pressure is being put on the English team to  boycott  the World Cup in Moscow because Russian President Vladimir Putin would likely use it “like Hitler used the 1936 Olympics”

So the international leaders of human rights and the sanctity of human life, have reduced the victims of the poison attack, to mere pawns in the chess game against  Russia. The current expulsion game is  like a reality show; even Stoltenberg admits that the primary effect on Russia is that the expulsions may reduce its capability to carry out  intelligence work in the countries its diplomatic strength had been reduced.  Generally, sanctions against Russia by the West have become seasonal with a lot of drama, but little effect.  One major one was the 2014 sanctions over the Russian “annexation” of Crimea and alleged interference in Ukraine.

I feel I am in a cinema hall waiting for the second part  of this expulsion film; so I need to stretch my legs, get popcorn and a bottle of Zobo drink  to watch Part II which may be titled “Russia Retaliates