This column first appeared on Broadsheet on Monday February 28th
I start this week’s column, picking up from where I left off last week, by looking at the future prospects of the Russian Ambassador to Ireland, Yury Filatov.
Last Monday I suggested that he be sent home. I was not the first to say it. The call has echoed across most of Leinster House. At the end of last week we heard individual Labour and Fine Gael demand his expulsion. Inside Fianna Fáil, Jim O’Callaghan TD led a coordinated call by the party’s backbench TDs, MEPs, and Senators for the Ambassador to be expelled.
Sinn Féin also read the public mood and, to its credit, did a 180-degree-turn on its decades’ long stance of rarely criticising Putin or Russia by issuing a strong statement calling for both the “…expulsion of Russian Ambassador and tougher sanctions.”
The party leader Mary Lou McDonald reiterated this call on Twitter, taking time off her busy schedule of not explaining why her lone MEP, Chris MacManus voted repeatedly against a European Parliament motion last December that:
- Supports Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders…
- Condemns the current large Russian military build-up along the borders with Ukraine and rejects any Russian justification for it…
The lengthy and detailed motion was passed with 548 votes in favour, 69 against and 54 abstentions. Sadly, four of the against votes were Irish. Sinn Féin has yet to explain what was in the motion to make them oppose it.
For that matter, the Irish Green Party has not explained why its two MEPs shamefully abstained. They were the only Greens in the European Parliament to abstain. Only one Green MEP opposed the motion, Tatjana Ždanoka, a particularly nasty, pro-Soviet Latvian.
However, notwithstanding Sinn Féin’s refusal to explain its past opportunism, its move to now advocating a responsible position, has left the likes of Mick Wallace, Claire Daly, Bríd Smith, Ming Flanagan, and Paul Murphy alone to explain to Ukrainians, Moldovans and others raised in the shadow of Putin’s Russia, how a war unleashed by Putin is NATO’s fault.
Returning to the fate of Filatov. Yesterday, the Foreign Affairs and Defence minister, Simon Coveney, told the Sunday Independent that he expected the EU would expel Russian diplomats as part of a coordinated move, but felt that this would not include full ambassadors. He also foreshadowed the coordinated EU move to ban all Russian aircraft in EU and Irish airspace
While it is better for the EU to be seen to act in unity, we should not underestimate the symbolic power that expelling ambassadors would have in isolating the Putin regime. A point which former Russian chess grandmaster and Putin opponent, Garry Kasparov, has often made.
As a small, independent country that values its freedoms, Ireland should be to the forefront in calling for the expulsion of all Russian diplomats, including Ambassadors, as another way to register our outrage at the attempted obliteration of a sovereign country by its bigger neighbour.
Minister Helen McEntee’s comments on RTE’s This Week that expelling Filatov risks a “complete breakdown” in diplomatic relations, misses this point. Diplomacy failed to avoid this crisis, not because we failed to keep the diplomatic channels open, but because Putin’s Russia was not interested in any diplomatic resolution. Putin has misread the West’s willingness to engage as proof of weakness and preparedness to concede.
Though there is a strategic benefit to acting in unison and severing all EU/Russian diplomatic links together, we can still lead the way, right now, by expelling the two Russian Defence Attachés, Col Igor Molyanov and Lt Col Dmitry Chivikov, accredited to the Russian compound at Orwell Road.
They are military representatives of an army that has already committed horrendous war crimes. There is now no justification for Russia to have defence attachés here, and it now must be made clear that Ireland will not permit any future Russian diplomatic representation in Ireland to include Defence Attachés.
As for the Ambassador himself, we have a responsibility to guarantee his personal security and safety, and that of his retinue, while he is here. And to ensure his safe return to Russia, if and when he is expelled.
As for what happens him upon his return to Moscow, that is outside of our control. For Ambassador Filatov’s sake let us hope that he is not assigned to the task of daily briefing President Putin on the faltering state of his attack on Ukraine, and how the easy victory Putin once imagined has become a tragic nightmare for young Russian conscripts.
Though it is still possible that Russia may – through overwhelming brute force and war crimes – succeed in taking Kyiv and other cities east of the Dnipro River, Putin has managed in under five days to undo the disunity, and discord he had sown within the EU and the US, with over twenty years of dezinformatsiya and other “active measures”.
The EU is more united than ever in its resolve to stand up to Putin’s aggression. NATO is more cohesive and determined than it has been in over a decade.
Relations between the EU and the US, particularly in the area of security cooperation, are repaired after four years of Trumpism. And while Trumpism was, in part, a product pf Putin interference in domestic US politics, the repair in relations is also largely due to Putin.
But he is not entitled to all the credit. The repair is also due to the leadership of President Biden, who has helped the EU to reach a speedy internal consensus by not offering an American running commentary. We can be grateful that America has someone in the Oval office who knows how to build and lead a strong coalition.
But as important and ground shifting as these improvements have been, the most momentous change came yesterday, from Berlin. Addressing a special session of the Bundestag, German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announced a stunning shift in German defence policy committing €100 billion to military spending, saying:
“It’s clear we need to invest significantly more in the security of our country, in order to protect our freedom and our democracy,”
As great a shift as this marks in German national defence policy, Scholz’s move is an even bigger change for his party, the SPD. Since the days of Willy Brandt, the SPD has pursued Ostpolitik, sometimes called the “changed through trade” policy of normalising and building relations with the old East Germany (DDR) and the wider eastern bloc.
Though unfairly characterised as appeasement, the Ostpolitik policy continued under Chancellor Helmut Kohl and helped to lay the foundations of democracy in several old Warsaw Pact countries. It was the right policy to pursue at the time – but now that times have changed, so too must the policy responses.
This seismic shift in Germany’s approach to Russia was not on the immediate horizon a few weeks ago. Neither was the imminent prospect of Finnish and Swedish NATO membership. This well researched Wilson Centre paper on the possibility of NATO expansion, published barely four weeks ago, concluded that:
“Given the state of public opinion in both Sweden and Finland, it is unlikely that either country will join NATO in the foreseeable future…”
To be fair to the report’s authors, I should quote the second part of the sentence, as they attached a significant and perceptive codicil:
“ …barring any significant changes in the relations between the EU and Russia.”
Putin’s attack on the Ukraine, his barely veiled direct threats to Sweden, Finland and the Baltic countries and his direction that Russia’s strategic nuclear forces aise their alert status, have changed relations not just significantly, but calamitously – for him, and for his Belarus ally, Alexander Lukashenko.
Putin went into Ukraine hoping to spread such fear and panic that he would collapse President Zelensky’s government. That has not worked. He is now attempting to do the same to the West with a very public raising of Russia’s nuclear readiness status.
This is a deeply worrying step. But perhaps it is less worrying than if he had given the order to the Russian chain of command secretly. Doubtless Western intelligence sources would have quickly learned of the move and understood that he was not bluffing.
This step up in nuclear alert is the act of weakened leader trying hard to look strong.
The irony is that he alone picked this deck of cards. He not only stacked the deck, he also marked all the cards, dealt them and yet still managed to give himself a lousy hand that – fortunately for the civilised world – no longer contains a Trump.
The coming days and weeks will be painful for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine. Ireland is doing well in supporting them, but it can do more. Our contribution to the purchase of non-lethal material as part of the EU’s €500 million package of both lethal and non-lethal equipment to aid the Ukrainian military, is welcome, but it’s a distinction without a difference. One that borders on being as pointless and perplexing as the Green MEPs abstention last December.
We should, like Sweden, recognise that things have changed and – also like Sweden – we should be moving to directly gift Ukrainian forces with anti-armour, anti-tank, mortar, unmanned aerial vehicles and other systems our Irish Defence Forces currently possess, though recognising that we must replace these immediately.
In the meantime, each of us can also help by donating to Ukrainian support groups, including the Ukrainian Red Cross/Red Crescent