Russia’s ambassador to Denmark, Vladimir Barbin, was summoned to a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday afternoon, the ministry said.
The meeting was in response to Barbin’s signing on Monday night in recognition of the Ukrainian territories of Luhansk and Donetsk as Russian republics.
In light of this, and of Irish and New Zealand politicians calling for the expulsion of Russian diplomats from their national soil, you may be wondering how and why diplomats can be expelled from their host country.
In fact, EU ministers as a bloc decided not to expel Russian ambassadors, but “this and other possible diplomatic measures remain on the table”.
Diplomatic immunity explained
Diplomats and their staff are guaranteed diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. A certain amount of espionage is tolerated under the list of diplomacy – especially between the United States and Russia – but usually each country simply rejects the accusations.
Two privileges delimit diplomatic immunity. First, the “inviolability of the diplomatic agent” protects the ambassador, his staff, his residence and his documents from being searched, intruded on, damaged or seized.
Second, “immunity from jurisdiction” gives the ambassador immunity from civil and criminal jurisdiction of the State in which he works.
Together, these guarantees allow diplomats to perform their duties: to act between host and sender states; and serves as a tool for government discourse.
There is a caveat: the diplomat must respect the internal security of the host state and do nothing to endanger the security of the host state.
Even though they defy this rule – for example, by spying or otherwise violating the UN Convention – they are still protected from jurisdiction. In this case, the host state can declare them a Persona Non Grata.
Persona Non Grata explained
If a person is declared Persona Non Grata, it must be revoked by the State of dispatch. Diplomatic immunity protects against imprisonment, so declaring an agent Persona Non Grata is the only effective way to inhibit foreign missions or suspected spy networks before they can do any serious harm.
According to Article 9 of the Vienna Convention: “The receiving State may at any time and without explaining its decision notify the sending State that the Head of Mission or any other member of staff is Persona Non Grata.” In other words, the procedure itself provides sufficient legal justification for expulsion.
Usually, the expulsion of a diplomat in one country will result in a counter-expulsion in the other. As this hampers the international activity of both states, governments are typically cautious when dealing with embassy and consular staff.
35 ‘diplomats’ expelled after US election intervention in 2016
Nevertheless, deportations have been rising over the past ten years – especially among Russian consular missions.
In 2016, the Obama administration expelled 35 Russian intelligence agents in response to Russian interference in the US presidential election. In the last five years, the United States has expelled over 100 Russian “diplomats”.
2018 neurotoxin attacks cause mass deportations
In 2018, over 100 Russian suspected intelligence agents posing as diplomats in Western countries were expelled in a coordinated international response to the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence official who served as a dual agent for the British government.
Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Russian-developed Novichok chemical neurotoxin in the English town of Salisbury on March 4.
The Russian government called the deportations a “provocative gesture” and promised to retaliate – even launching a poll on Twitter asks which US consulate in Russia should close.
2021 Czech expulsions trigger NATO solidarity
In April 2021, the Czech Republic announced that it would deport 18 Russian embassy staff, identified as intelligence agents, after the Czech authorities determined that the Russian intelligence service was behind a deadly warehouse bombing in 2014 that left two people dead.
Russia responded by expelling 20 Czech diplomats from Russia, effectively wiping out the much smaller Czech mission in Russia. When the Russians rejected a Czech request to reinstall some diplomatic staff, Prague ordered more than 60 Russian embassy staff to leave the country.
In solidarity with the Czech Republic, a number of NATO’s Central European and Baltic member states also expelled Russian diplomats. This constituted the second ‘solidarity expulsion’ carried out by NATO members following the Novichok expulsions in 2018.
What does it mean?
NATO and the EU are increasingly joining forces and using various foreign policy tools to oppose and express disapproval of Russian activities.
Although they seem dramatic, deportations are mostly relatively low-risk examples of political gestures. Nevertheless, they signal a breach of communication through the closure of diplomatic channels and the restriction of consular services.
Why is this relevant?
Today, few politicians have called for Russian diplomatic expulsions in response to the Ukraine invasion. Instead, Australia, Britain, the United States, the European Union and Canada have said they will personally sanction Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Many members of the Russian Security Council, Russia’s parliament and Russian oligarchs have already been sanctioned.
New Zealand’s foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee has called on the government to expel Russia’s top diplomat from the country and have New Zealand’s ambassador recalled from Moscow.
There are also some calls from Irish politicians to expel their Russian diplomats, but Ireland’s Justice Minister Helen McEntee opposed it “would risk a complete collapse of diplomatic relations at a time when channels had to be kept open”.
A delicate game
Here, McEntee points to the reason why, despite the devastating attacks on Ukraine, there have been no serious negotiations to expel Russian diplomats – although outrage against Putin’s regime has already led to extraordinary international action coming into play.
While EU ministers say deportations “remain on the table”, it is a delicate game: further isolating Russia can be a dangerous step.
Source: The Nordic Page