One could be forgiven for seriously wondering if what we are dealing with right now might not be a Cold War redux: Russo-West relations have hit rock bottom, again, with Russian diplomats being expelled in quick succession by the U.S., among other countries.
The direct precipitant of all this geopolitical hullaballoo is the attempted murder of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, in the south of England. To add some biographical background, while serving a treason sentence in Russia for having spied for the U.K. as a double agent, Skripal was released from jail as part of a spy exchange, and took up residence in the U.K.
Shortly after the incident, the British government claimed that a nerve agent developed by the former Soviet Union was the culprit, boldly proceeding to the expulsions of 23 Russian diplomats. Britain has, in the past, too, had this sort of tragedy occur on its own soil, for example, when a former Russian intelligence officer was poisoned with a radioactive substance.
This latest case, however, seems to have struck a sympathetic chord with the U.S. and Europe as the first nerve agent attacks since the end of World War II, prompting them and NATO to give a green light to massive expulsions, totaling as many as 150 Russian diplomats.
Even before these attacks, the West harbored deep distrust toward iron-fisted Vladimir Putin's Russia, with its boldfaced global-scale electoral interference campaigns (not least in the 2016 U.S. presidential election) involving cyberattacks and disinformation, as well as the annexation of Crimea.
Much of the West justifiably suspects these sorts of shenanigans – which have every possibility of shaking national machinery to its core – to be the work of Russian Embassy intelligence officers. It appears that in this spate of expulsions, this pent-up mistrust has at long last come to a head.
Meanwhile, Russia adamantly denies its involvement. However, it should not dismiss the Western actions out of hand. Rather, it should take them as a grave warning: a warning against its persistent provocations and destabilizing behavior. Additionally, it should eschew any further aggravation of the situation, and seek to recover the trust of the international community.
So far, the Japanese government has distanced itself from similar retaliatory moves in favor of first ascertaining all the facts. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to visit Russia in late May. There he should broach this incident with Putin and stress his determination to get to the truth of the matter.