Newspapers around the world this week debated the decision of Britain’s allies to oust Russian diplomats and Moscow’s retaliatory expulsions of American and other diplomats. The moves were triggered by the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England.
British newspaper The Guardian felt that the message of unity is essential although the expulsion of around 150 diplomats, all suspected spies, by 23 western allies was largely a symbolic act. In an editorial, the paper said the biggest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officials in history — according to British Prime Minister Theresa May is likely to damage Moscow’s intelligence-gathering, but they do not cover those who are spying without diplomatic cover. “Allies have acted from sensible national interest. The collective message both indicates anger at Russian actions targeting them in recent years — such as cyberattacks — and puts down a marker. Unleashing a chemical weapon on the streets of a city is hardly a marginal issue; it crosses a line few would want to ignore,” the paper said. The New York Times said that there is a Cold War pattern to the expulsions and retaliation, but there is a potentially dangerous difference. “During the original Cold War, Moscow and Washington recognised that their ideological hostility and nuclear arsenals needed to be contained, so they talked through back channels and across a “hotline” to prevent unexpected crises from triggering confrontations, worked on disarmament and held regular meetings at all levels, up to the top.”
But the paper added that Post-Communist Russia is not the enemy the Soviet Union was. “Throughout Russia’s slow slide into authoritarianism, there has lingered a hope that relations with Moscow can be reset, as Hillary Clinton sought to do and as President Trump seems eager to do. And while Putin’s drive to restore Russian influence and might — witness his proud unveiling of an intercontinental missile in March that ‘can reach any point in the world’ — is an echo of Soviet behaviour, Russia has also undergone a considerable transformation since 1991,” it added.
The Sydney Morning Herald said the Skripals — Sergei and daughter Yulia — have come to symbolise all of Europe’s and Nato’s problems with Russia, and explains the breadth of anger.
“Although the expulsions are impressive as a public demonstration of international anger, they will not actually affect Putin or his regime greatly. The expulsions may disrupt some Russian intelligence networks, but analysts believe even that effect is doubtful. It is the networks that exist outside the diplomatic orbit that are likely to be more extensive and more effective,” the Australian said in an editorial. Saying that diplomatic protests may not be enough, the paper said: “It may be time that Western countries started targeting the overseas assets of Russian plutocrats who are [Russia President Vladimir] Putin cronies. And if all else fails — the World Cup looms large.”
The Globe and Mail said the coordinated response to the Russian nerve-agent attack in the United Kingdom is timely and welcome at a time when it seems like traditional international alliances are fracturing. “It’s about time. Russia has been a bad actor for too long. Between its occupation of Crimea, its military intervention in Ukraine, its cyberattacks on US power grids and its meddling in foreign elections, it is on the verge of qualifying for pariah status,” the Canadian paper said in an editorial.