Russia, the UK, and Diplomatic Theatre

Is anyone out there actually concerned that the current diplomatic row between the United Kingdom and Russia will result in anything serious? I’m certainly not. Yet many in the press and in the blogosphere seem to think that we’re witnessing a real “showdown” and that Russia will either finally be made to be held accountable for its lawlessness or that Moscow will definitively prove it can do whatever it pleases and will not bend before the requests of the West. If only. For those who have been living under a rock, here is a quick revisionist history of the week’s events: On Monday, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband made a tough speech condemning Russia for its refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, a prime suspect in the investigation of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, and announced that the UK is expelling four Russian diplomats. Following almost immediately, Mikhail Kamynin of the Russian Foreign Ministry shrewdly declared London’s position to be “immoral” and promised “the most serious consequences.” Although the Russians indicated that the response would not necessarily be symmetrical, everyone expected a swift answer. Instead nothing happened – and for days all we had was speculation and more whining that Britain’s desire to solve a nuclear murder on their own soil was nothing more than “Russophobia.” Finally, just today Russia issued its response: they will also expel four British diplomats and suspend counterterrorism cooperation with London. What did Moscow’s delay mean? I’m not inclined to believe that it was a skillful pause, but rather I think it was an indecisive hiccup. The Kremlin probably realized that it overplayed its hand in its quest to achieve superpower status at all costs and maintain domestic stability and popularity by engaging in this diplomatic theatre of hubris (one interesting indication of this was that the Nashi appeared to be under strict instructions to take no action in this dispute – which is a shocking aberration from the Estonia experience). Anyone should be able to recognize that the new Gordon Brown government has no intention of starting its term with a failure – they would sooner accept a Pyrrhic victory to demonstrate their mettle. Also, like many of its smaller disputes with other nations, Russia only wants to keep up this “constructive dissonance” rather than actually break rank with Europe. The Chinese are hell to deal with on energy, and Russia has no intention of losing the European market. Why on earth would they want to lose their prime money laundering vehicle, especially in an election year? It simply doesn’t add up. So I do believe that nothing is going to happen, and that a face-saving exit will be designed and implemented for both parties to look good in front voters. However even in this loss Russia has managed to move forward on several important fronts: 1) They successfully tested the pull of their influence on investors and EU unity, even in a nuclear murder case, 2) They were able to half-sell the idea that the UK’s refusal to extradite Zakayev and Berezovsky was in some way equitable or comparable to Russia’s refusal to extradite Lugovoi, and 3) they were successful in continuing to reinforce the mass perception that Litvinenko was murdered because he was a spy, not a British citizen whistle blower. The latest bout of diplo-mania shows that only one of the two countries understands that Russia needs the UK and Europe much more than they need Russia. Can you guess who?