Britain, Canada and Australia have all so far declined to expel Russian diplomats, putting themselves at odds with 15 EU nations that have now evicted more than 200 in response to the pictures of war crimes committed in Ukraine.
A further 100 Russian diplomats had been expelled in the preceding two months.
The British reticence to act came despite an effective warning from the UK foreign secretary, Liz Truss, that the west’s relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia were over.
Truss told a Nato foreign ministers’ dinner that the Nato-Russian Founding Act, the basis of cooperation between Moscow and Nato, was at an end. She said: “The age of engagement is over. We need a new approach to security in Europe based on resilience, defense and deterrence.
“There is no time for false comfort. Russia is not retreating but regrouping and repositioning to push harder for the east and south of Ukraine. ”
Truss added that this would require a new approach to those countries that might be at risk of being ensnared in Russia’s web – Moldova, Georgia, Finland and Sweden.
That may require expending more diplomatic resources to monitor and analyze Russia, and some diplomats claim expulsions of Russian diplomats from the UK will only lead to tit-for-tat expulsions from an already denuded Moscow embassy.
In 2018 Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats after Moscow refused to explain how a Russian-made nerve agent was used on Sergei Skripal, a former spy, in Salisbury. Russia responded to the UK’s actions by saying the British and Russian embassies must be of equal size, requiring more than 50 British diplomats to leave. The UK does not disclose the size of its embassy in Russia, but it is known the previous expulsions stripped the UK of much political intelligence and research expertise.
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, became the western leader who was most willing to articulate the case for continued diplomatic relations, saying that if Canada expelled Russians, Moscow was bound to implement reciprocal measures – thus reducing the number of Canadian eyes and ears in Russia .
“I am just not sure the symbolic gesture of excluding Russian diplomats from what they are doing in Canada is worth the cost of losing our diplomats in Moscow,” he said.
In the last seven days Poland has expelled 45 Russian diplomats, Germany 40, France 35, Slovenia 33, Italy 30, Spain 25, Belgium 21, the Netherlands 17, Denmark 15, Latvia 13, Greece 12, Portugal 10, Estonia seven, Ireland four, Sweden three, the Czech Republic one and Luxembourg one. Lithuania said it was expelling the Russian ambassador. The expulsions have come in two waves, some in mid-March, but a large crop after pictures of alleged Russian war crimes circulated.
A continued refusal of the UK to join its European allies has already drawn criticism from the Labor party, given how much store the UK placed in the act of solidarity by other western embassies in the wake of the Skripal poisoning. Those expulsions were backed by Donald Trump, who threw out 60 Russian diplomats. In total 29 western countries expelled 145 Russian diplomats.
The Russian deputy foreign minister, Alexander Grushko, said he wanted to maintain diplomatic relations with the west, but pledged countermeasures.
Grushko said European countries disrupting the work of Russian diplomats were damaging their own interests.