The Biden administration’s expulsion of ten Russian diplomats on Thursday brought about a tit-for-tat response from Moscow almost immediately. Now, it appears the move and countermove have set off a string of similar actions between Russia and Ukraine, as well as a growing number of other European countries.
The exchange between Ukraine and Russia has come about because of events in St Petersburg on Friday. Alexander Sosonyuk, Ukraine’s consul in St. Petersburg was accused of receiving classified information and was taken into custody by the FSB (Federal Security Bureau) on Friday. There has been no explanation of exactly what type of classified information Sosonyuk was allegedly found in possession of. Later in the day, the Russian foreign ministry informed the Ukrainian government that Sosonyuk must leave the country by Thursday. The Ukrainian foreign ministry responded by announcing that a senior Russian diplomat will be expelled from Ukraine on Monday.
Fresh on the heels of that, the Czech Republic today announced the expulsion of 18 Russian embassy officials linked to an ammunition depot explosion in 2014. Prime Minister Andrej Babis said earlier today that Czech intelligence agencies have provided him with clear evidence about the involvement of Russian embassy officials in the blast that killed two people. While the expulsion of diplomats suspected to be intelligence officers is nothing new, the timing of the Czech move raises an eyebrow. With so many nations directly or otherwise involved in the Ukraine crisis now trading PNG (persona non grata) declarations, one has to wonder where it will all end. Also, these moves will adversely affect tensions in the region over the coming days.
On the diplomatic front, expect to see more expulsions also in the next few days. For what it’s worth, don’t be surprised if Belarus, or another Russian ally steps up and declares a number of Western diplomats to be declared persona non grata. That’s how the game is played.
Monday was a dark day for Russia. An explosive device detonated on a crowded metro train as it departed from Sennaya Ploshchad station around 1430 local time. Eleven people were killed and over fifty injured to one degree or another. A second device was found at another metro station and defused before it could detonate. An investigation began immediately and it was not long before police labeled the incident a terror attack, specifically a suicide bombing. Today, Russian officials released the name of the bomber, Akbardzhon Dzhalilov, a 22 year old Central Asian national. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in the city at the time of the attack. It is not likely that there is a connection between his visit and the attack. Putin being in St Petersburg yesterday was merely a matter of happenstance.
Today, as St Petersburg attempts to return to normal amid increased security at transportation infrastructure locations there is speculation in the media on how the Russian government will respond to this terrorist attack. Russia is no stranger to terrorism and past attacks have favored transportation locations. They are especially soft targets with large amounts of people coming and going. Security is porous under the best conditions, however. It is simply not possible to screen each and every person stepping into or out of a metro station, bus terminal, or airport. Yesterday’s attack was the latest of many against transportation locations in Russia. One of the most infamous attacks was the 2009 bombing of the Nevsky Express train running between Moscow and St Petersburg that killed 29 people. Islamic militants from the North Caucasus were responsible for that attack.
The St Petersburg attack also reaffirms the grim reality that Russia has been wrestling with a terror problem long before it became involved in the Syrian conflict. The majority of bombers and attackers that have struck Russian targets have come from the North Caucasus region, a hotbed of instability and Islamic insurgency for decades, if not centuries. Many of the men and women responsible for launching terror attacks on Russian soil have come from this region or from Central Asia.
International reaction was swift in coming. Leaders from Europe to the United States expressed their remorse and offered aid if possible. President Trump spoke on the phone with Putin and personally extended his condolences. Combatting terrorism is one issue the US and Russia seem to agree on. Relations between the two nations have deteriorated in recent years, yet it’s the hope of many observers that fighting terrorism will provide some common ground for Washington and Moscow to build upon in the future.