Russia’s Diplomatic Isolation

The West continues to close Moscow off.

Earlier in the week, Ukraine’s President called for expelling Russia from the UN Security Council after its atrocities in Bucha and elsewhere. While there is no practical way to do that under the Charter, the United States called for instead removing them from the UN’s Human Rights Council. Yesterday, it happened.

Reuters (“U.N. suspends Russia from human rights body, Moscow then quits“):

The United Nations General Assembly on Thursday suspended Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council over reports of “gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights” in Ukraine, prompting Moscow to announce it was quitting the body.

The U.S.-led push garnered 93 votes in favor, while 24 countries voted no and 58 countries abstained. A two-thirds majority of voting members in the 193-member General Assembly in New York – abstentions do not count – was needed to suspend Russia from the 47-member Geneva-based Human Rights Council.

Speaking after the vote, Russia’s deputy U.N. Ambassador Gennady Kuzmin described the move as an “illegitimate and politically motivated step” and then announced that Russia had decided to quit the Human Rights Council altogether.

“You do not submit your resignation after you are fired,” Ukraine’s U.N. Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya told reporters.

Russia was in its second year of a three-year term. Under Thursday’s resolution, the General Assembly could have later agreed to end the suspension. But that cannot happen now Russia has quit the council, just as the United States did in 2018 over what it called chronic bias against Israel and a lack of reform.

The United States was last year re-elected to the council. Suspensions are rare. Libya was suspended in 2011 because of violence against protesters by forces loyal to then-leader Muammar Gaddafi.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the United Nations “sent a clear message that the suffering of victims and survivors will not be ignored.”

Of course, 82 countries voted No or were too cowardly to go on the record.

WaPo (“Human rights vote at U.N. highlights stark divisions over Russia“):

he total was a significant reduction from the 141 that voted in favor of last month’s nonbinding General Assembly measure condemning Russia’s “aggression” in Ukraine.

On the other side, the 24 countries that opposed Thursday’s action — compared to five last month — included China, Iran, Vietnam, Algeria, Ethiopia, much of Central Asia and Cuba, all of which had previously abstained.

“We firmly oppose the politicization of human rights issues” and “double standards,” China’s representative said. Introduced days after images circulated of dead civilians lying in the streets of the Kyiv suburb of Bucha following Russian troop withdrawals, the suspension resolution “was not drafted in an open and transparent manner,” he said, and “forces countries to choose sides.”

Most striking was Thursday’s 58 abstentions by those who declined to choose sides in a way that some said would undermine the U.N. system itself. They including all but a handful of African nations and the entire Persian Gulf. Many of the abstainers strongly condemned what was happening in Ukraine, and seemed to have little doubt about who was responsible.

But most expressed unease over adjudicating it, however credible and horrifying the allegations of torture and intentional killing of civilians, before the charges had been fully investigated by U.N. and other inquiries already initiated to do just that.

Singapore, which voted last month in favor of condemnation and whose prime minister visited with President Biden last week at the White House, said it was “gravely concerned and distressed” by recent reports and images from Bucha. But it explained its Thursday abstention as support for the “independent, international commission of inquiry” that the Human Rights Council has already established to investigate the alleged human rights abuses, and urged all countries to cooperate with it.

Some abstainers, many with their own human rights problems, argued that the suspension vote set a bad precedent, and would make an already bad situation worse. Saudi Arabia, which supported last month’s resolution, called the Russian suspension “an escalatory step” and “a form of politicization of the work of the council … that gives certain [countries] more rights than others.”

This rather belies the notion that there is an “international community,” much less a “liberal world order.” Power and interest trump values in most instances, with only a relative handful of nations willing to sacrifice for “justice.” And, even then, only situationally.

Within the Western alliance, however, action has been increasingly tough. The HRC wasn’t the only move, as WaPo‘s Shane Harris, John Hudson and Michael Birnbaum note (“Expulsion of Russian ‘diplomats’ may strangle Moscow’s spying“):

In the international game of spy vs. spy, Europe has dealt Russia a potentially crippling blow.

Nearly two dozen European countries have expelled hundreds of Russian government personnel from embassies and consulates since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February and more recently was accused of war crimes against civilians. A significant number are probably spies posing as diplomats, according to U.S. and European officials.

Russia depends on those operatives to gather intelligence inside the countries where they serve, so the expulsions could dismantle large parts of Moscow’s spy networks and lead to a dramatic reduction in espionage and disinformation operations against the West, current and former officials said.

“The intelligence war with Russia is at full swing,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA officer who oversaw the agency’s clandestine operations in Europe and Russia. “This … will prove to be a significant dent in Russian intelligence operations in Europe.” Officials said it appeared to be the largest ever coordinated expulsion of diplomats from Europe.

“Europe has always been the Russians’ playground. They have wreaked havoc with election interference and assassinations. This is a long overdue step,” Polymeropoulos said.

In the past six weeks, European officials have asked nearly 400 Russian diplomats to leave their postings, according to a tally by The Washington Post. Notably, countries that have long tried to avoid confrontation with Moscow are among those declaring Russian diplomats persona non grata.

Expulsions by the Czech Republic, for example, which has in the past pursued a less hawkish policy toward Moscow, have left just six Russian diplomats in Prague, a point the government underscored on Wednesday. “WE FORCED 100 RUSSIAN ‘DIPLOMATS’ TO LEAVE,” said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in an Instagram post that implied the Russian officials were actually intelligence officers.

Senior European officials involved in the expulsion process said the impact would likely vary from place to place. Some countries, like Austria, are thick with international agencies that are prime targets. Other regions, like the Baltics, have large numbers of ethnic Russians who moved there during the Soviet occupation and can be targets for influence campaigns.

A senior European diplomat called it a “major disruption” to Russia’s intelligence work in Europe, potentially a permanent one. The Kremlin will have difficulty replenishing its intelligence ranks, the diplomat said.

“Reassigning and instruction will take time and may not be possible for some time, if ever,” said the diplomat who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “Retraining, redeploying, all of this is disrupted.”

On Monday, prompted by scenes of atrocities in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, where civilians were found shot after Russian forces had left, Germany declared 40 Russian diplomats “undesirable persons,” calling them threats to national security who had “worked against our freedom.” On the same day, France also announced expulsions.

In Lithuania and Latvia, Baltic countries that routinely push a hard line against the Kremlin, the governments ordered the closure of Russian consulates this week and expelled a new wave of Russian officials including the Russian ambassador to Lithuania.

“For the Russians, it is painful,” a senior Baltic diplomat said. “We closed their regional network.”

[…]

The United States expelled 12 Russians described as “intelligence operatives” from the Russian Permanent Mission to the United Nations on Feb. 28, days after the Russian invasion began. That move had been in the works for months. It’s not clear if the Biden administration intends to kick out more Russians.

[…]

The last coordinated expulsion among the U.S. and its European allies followed Russia’s poisoning of a former British spy and his daughter in the English town of Salisbury in 2018. Two dozen nations ejected more than 150 Russians.

The present campaign eclipses that effort, which was the largest since the Cold War.

“It shows the seriousness of the allied response,” Polymeropoulos said. “There is always the consideration that if one country kicks out some Russians, they will reciprocate against your embassy in Moscow. The fact that so many countries decided on mass expulsions shows how the cost benefit calculation changed.”

And the effects may be long-lasting. “One can assume that in most cases the countries will not simply allow replacements to take the place of those who were expelled, which could mean an extended period of constrained Russian intelligence access to E.U. territory,” Rathke said.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Gustopher says:

    Russia depends on those operatives to gather intelligence inside the countries where they serve, so the expulsions could dismantle large parts of Moscow’s spy networks and lead to a dramatic reduction in espionage and disinformation operations against the West, current and former officials said.

    This may actually be very dangerous. I think that part of why the Cold War remained cold was that each side had pretty decent intelligence on the other, and there was a bit of transparency — take out some of the guesswork, and provide certainty to uncertain situations.

    It might not matter, though, as clearly Putin has surrounded himself with people that would tell him what he wanted to hear, so he’s been getting crappy intelligence anyway.

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    We did not have good intel on the USSR. The CIA missed the collapse of the Soviet Union, throughout most of the Cold War had an erroneous view of the USSR-China relationship, misunderstood Ho Chi Minh, and had imaginary armies ready to overthrow Castro.

    2