Diplomatic Warfare: Russia’s Misuse of Diplomacy to Further State Interests

  • European Security Journal
  • 5.5.2021 15:54

Recent events in Central Europe have brought to light an acute problem - Russian spy and intelligence activity under the guise and protection of international law. Due to lack of a unified EU strategy in this domain, Russia feels emboldened to continue intelligence operations as well as use them for domestic propaganda.

Russian Hybrid Activities in Europe 

Two weeks ago, on April 17th, the Czech Republic revealed the intelligence service investigation information about explosions on a weapons depot, back in 2014. The move occurred amidst preparations for the Czech Republic’s Minister of Interior, who was at the time also the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to visit Moscow, to the surprise of all parties involved. According to BIS (government intelligence service) information, it was revealed that the explosion was caused by Russia - by two agents previously tied to the Skripal poisoning and an attempt to poison a Bulgarian businessman.      

According to the official information that was so far disclosed, the ammunition that exploded was indeed connected to the Bulgarian businessman, Emilian Gebrev, who was put into a coma after the 2015 poisoning. Recently, retracting his earlier statements, Gebrev admitted that the explosion damaged his merchandise, which would have likely been added to the stock of what was later shipped to Ukraine.

This connection supports the theory that the explosions in the Czech Republic were not calculated by the agents - the ammunition was supposed to go off after it had reached Bulgaria. Nevertheless, if true, this incompetence on the Russian agents’ part cost two depot workers their lives.           

The fact that this sabotage happened on the Czech soil - sabotage that borders an act of terrorism - and is not being widely acknowledged as something inexcusable is playing into the Kremlin hands. Czech President Milos Zeman, who has long been lauded as a staunch supporter of Russia and China and accused of doing their bidding, has further confused the public and foreign allies by contradicting official BIS statements.

So far, the affair has damaged several states' diplomatic relationship with Russia. The Czech Republic and Russia have dramatically reduced each other's numbers of diplomats and staff at embassies in Prague and Moscow. In acts of solidarity, Slovakia and Baltic states have also expelled several Russian diplomats, however, to Russia these moves are expected and within the range of “absorbable” damage to its operations.

Russia is further misusing international law through international institutions. Prague Security Studies Institute’s report reveals that diplomacy is just one dimension that Russia is using in its hybrid activity. Indeed, as the national security audit released by Czech MOI in 2015 suggests, the Russian government is employing hybrid tactics throughout the DIMEFIL spectrum. The aforementioned report by Zachary Kramer frames the way Russia has appropriated a Soviet-era economic institution to serve its modern needs

The International Investment Bank was a Soviet-era intergovernmental organization that was supposed to facilitate joint development loans between USSR and COMECON members. However, according to the report, today this institution is used primarily for evading economic sanctions against the Russian Federation.

Due to the recent warm-up between the Hungarian and Russian political elite, the bank was moved from Moscow to Hungary, where it enjoys complete diplomatic immunity as an international organization. Despite being functionally incapable of fulfilling its purpose, there is no way for the EU or Hungarian authorities to investigate the bank. Moreover, the report lists several collusion cases where the bank, its activity or its property is tied to criminal investigations and corruption scandals.

But this is, indubitably, only the tip of the iceberg. If Russia breaks the rules in one country, it has no reason to respect them elsewhere. In 2020, Russian diplomats committed industrial espionage in Japan. Once again, protected by their status, they swiftly fled back to Russia. These are only the cases we know about, that are reported and investigated. Unless the EU takes a united stance and reflects on susceptibility of its member-states to the misuse of diplomacy, it will remain vulnerable to the Kremlin’s underhanded tactics. The same can be said about every other country which respects diplomatic immunity of foreign delegations - Russia can and is likely to misuse diplomatic immunity in every country it has interests in, political or financial.


Diplomacy as a Source of Domestic Propaganda

As mentioned before, the damage done so far is negligible for the Russian government. Mutual expulsion may paralyze the functioning of the embassies, however, it does not impact the Russian side enough to consider a change of policy. On the contrary, this international scandal is an important event that the Kremlin is largely benefitting from. 

President Milos Zeman’s calculated attempt to sit on both chairs (meaning to appease the domestic population with his proclamation, as well as to assure the Russian side of his support) has damaged Czech Republic’s standing in this scandal. The president of the country took a week to publicly respond to what many Czech nationals consider “an act of war” against the Czech Republic. What is worse, his statements contradict the official intelligence service information. The president is going as far as to claim there is “no definitive evidence of Russian involvement”, and with it he casts a shadow of doubt on the whole scandal, painting it as a politicized affair. For the Russian propaganda machine, this is a golden opportunity.

Russia is undergoing a continued political turmoil. The recent imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and the news of his treatment in the prison as well as illnesses, is scaring the Kremlin. In September, Russian parliamentary elections will be underway. Mounting domestic and international scandals are causing discontent with the ruling party among people and, as previous regional elections have not been completely dominated by the ruling party, the Kremlin is afraid of losing grip on the population.

Navalny is terrifying the system, the system is not convinced of its own invulnerability anymore and is preoccupied with Alexei Navalny and his allies. Just recently, his anti-corruption group was outlawed, using a law against extremist and terrorist organizations. Navalny’s lawyer detained and his close ally were sentenced through a law interpretation stretched to impossible limits - for reposting a music video by Rammstein.

Russian ruling elite has initiated a comprehensive, state-wide campaign to root out opposition that it considers as “undermining” to their grip on the population. The extremely scandalous Czech affair, thus helps to fill mass media air with patriotic slogans as well as play an international victim card - ultimately helping the Russian state more than it damages it.

As is a norm in politics, foreign relations are closely tied to the domestic situation. The Czech Republic has made the Kremlin an ultimatum - to cease the expulsion of its 20 embassy workers and diplomats from Russia, or it would face an even further reduction of its embassy workers in Prague - which it would have never accepted. Whether a conscious decision or a diplomatic mistake, the newly appointed foreign minister made Russia an offer it cannot accept, as giving in to any kind of ultimatum will be viewed as a weakness by the Russian population that is most supportive of the existing system. Russia is, thus, effectively cornered into choosing the most lucrative and effective course of action without giving it a second thought.

As the Russian government is built and sustained on the Soviet-era rhetoric of foreign dangers and the need of a strong, repressive government to protect the population, every time there is a way to twist the narrative in Russian favour, they do it. To keep oligarchs in power, it is important to persuade the population into believing the image of a powerful Russia, cornered by western conspiracies. To make the population believe in an external enemy. State propaganda is using all the accusations, twisting them to paint Russia as the victim of injustice and foreign plans to destroy it. The sudden emergence of the scandal, the then ongoing competition for the nuclear reactor tender and the Czech president’s words of doubt - all of this is an opportunity to strengthen the popular support for the government and the oligarchs’ grip on the population. Diplomacy becomes a tool of disinformation and propaganda on the level of state-media and the internet.


Concerns and conclusions

The Russian government is using many channels to further its interests, as well as to avoid incurring losses associated with punitive sanctions. It is clear that Russia is not valuing the trust allocated to its diplomatic missions and has no reservations about misusing diplomatic immunity and activities to further its foreign and domestic interests. Through the Czech Republic to Bulgaria, it has performed several special operations aimed at preventing support and supply for the Ukrainian state. Diplomatic immunity of their facilitators makes these operations extremely hard to uncover and prevent, as investigation of diplomats is forbidden, as per the international norm.

To uphold the law, states would be forced to break it, stooping down to Russia’s level and giving it even more propaganda-material for the domestic population. The Russian government has reached the point when it does not respect Russia’s identity as a state of law, bending criminal law in every possible way to remain in power.

Russia is thus acting in bad faith against both the domestic population and the international community. It has orchestrated several criminal incidents in Europe with the facilitation of its intelligence and diplomatic services. The idea of honest diplomacy itself is being endangered - with Russia dominated by the oligarchs, foreign service must obey the interests of the selected few. Every diplomat and every institution enjoying diplomatic immunity are thus at risk of being forced to spy, facilitate entry/operations of agents, take part in corruption or sanctions circumventing schemes. Moreover, they may conspire against the foreign government and propagate disinformation campaigns, as has already been the case.

What can be done about this predicament? The EU has recently adopted a resolution to retaliate with a move most damaging to the most important to the Russian elite aspect - finances. European Parliament has warned Russia that it will disallow it from the SWIFT system should it cause a military conflict in Ukraine, as well as due to its offences against the Czech Republic and Alexey Navalny.

This is a welcome step and it may de-escalate the military build-up on the Ukrainian borders, but will serve little to protect Alexey Navalny. Oligarchs-curated government, being afraid of losing political control over Russia, will attempt to parley with foreign partners, but will not allow dissent and opposition to take hold. The whole point is staying in power - they do not need war for that, but they will not survive a strong, organized opposition, which Navalny could eventually create.

It is worth noting, however, that an alarming pattern can be observed - only certain states, most of which historically have strained relations with Russia, have expelled their diplomats in acts of solidarity with Czech Republic. It is a question why the biggest EU states have not followed up and not expelled Russian diplomats, despite openly proclaiming their support for the wronged fellow EU member-state.

That much is understandable from the pragmatic viewpoint - for many of them, especially Germany, Russia is an important energy supplier and trade partner. Against the background of the Nord Stream-2 project, which seems to be nearing its finalization. Retaliating against Russia would mean putting Germany’s partner, and by extension this project, under unnecessary for them danger. This cold calculus is understandable, but puts in danger the basis of solidarity on which the EU is built upon. Moreover, it might serve as a proof that Russia’s energy policy indeed has a grip on European decision making.

EU and other countries are thus advised to keep using smart-sanctions, rather than comprehensive sanctions - with the aim of bringing the Kremlin to a net negative, should it overstep its limits and commit more crimes and grievances. First steps would be to prepare foreign property of Russian oligarchs, comprising the ruling system, for all-encompassing sanctioning. It should be made clear that further violations will result in a drastic financial and material loss for Vladimir Putin and his closest aides, as it is sure to demotivate them from pushing discontent foreign policymakers any further. Preventing them and affiliated people from entry into foreign states should also serve as a deterrence.

Another issue is how to prevent further intelligence operations under the guise of/facilitated by the diplomatic services and Russia-led international organizations. Uncovering the extent to which they are misused would require a thorough investigation into the entities, however, that would mean infringing on the existing international norms of diplomacy and diplomatic exchange. Careful measures need to be conceived to prevent a spiralining deterioration not only of state relations, but also of the institution of diplomacy itself. A more integrated, EU-wide intelligence service which timely shares information between all EU countries could be a starting point, although might be viewed as too ambitious and overreaching at the moment. But considering the scope of the issue, European Union should look into strengthening its diplomatic and intelligence security as soon as possible.

About author: European Security Journal


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