Back in January last year I opined on the negotiation psychology of spy expulsions:

It’s of course possible that as part of its New Psychological Approach, Moscow chooses deliberately to work out what everyone expects then not do that.

Think about it. You cause the other side to think hard about its policy choices by acting ‘rationally’ and increasing the certainty of the costs of your response.

But you can also act ‘irrationally’ by increasing uncertainty. That takes the negotiation to a deeper darker level. It raises the stakes in psychological terms and thereby tests the other side’s appetite for risk. Take this to its extreme, and you threaten chaos. And as we know, chaos is fair …

In that 1996 Moscow case by contrast, the Russian side could not resist heavy publicly gloating about its skill in catching a fat haul of British spies. This compelled the UK side to retaliate, as by going public so crassly the Russians made the negotiation partly about British ‘face’. (See the bungled LEWD UK response to Ecuador re Assange for an example of our messing this up.). The overall result for Moscow was a classic messy ‘kitchen diplomacy’ tit-for-tat that diluted the impact of its power-play.

This is why the Russians then looked long and hard about how best to manage such triumphs of counter-intelligence. And they did find a masterstroke. When you find a foreign diplomat up to sharp spying practices, don’t expel her/him. Just put her/him on TV instead, as an object of extended open ridicule.

The diplomat’s position will be impossible and her/his government will quietly bring her/him home. You get to have fun at their expense. The spy leaves in abject humiliation. They have no normal grounds for retaliating against your spies, and it’s not (yet) their style to use TV in this way against you. You look strong. They look weak. Win-win-win!

This time round we are not in that territory. London heaves out 23 diplomats in response to what it sees as murderous activities here in the UK linked to the top end of Moscow. The Russians respond by heaving out 23 of ours but also closing the Consulate-General in St Petersburg and the British Council operation in Russia: a carefully calibrated escalation. The absolute numbers of diplomats expelled might be the same on both sides, but proportionally the UK embassy and wider diplomatic presence in Russia is much harder hit.

I’ve just been on the BBC World Service Newsday programme explaining some of this. I made the point that the Russians typically employ far fewer ‘locally engaged staff’ in their Embassies than we do: Russians get sent overseas as Embassy drivers, cooks, cleaners and so on. This makes their Embassies much larger and so lets them try to hide intelligence operatives of different shapes and sizes in unobvious places.

It follows that London has a plump Russian embassy intelligence target to aim at. The Russians by contrast know that they are expelling mainly mainstream diplomats. How to choose? The smart ones? The busy ones? The senior ones? All the Russian-speakers? The people who have just started their postings so as to create maximum disruption? So many delicious options.

These diplomatic tit-for-tats typically fizzle out. Even if diplomatic relations are broken off completely and embassies are closed, some sort of bilateral relationship/dialogue continues. It has to. States have interests and concerns regardless of the current warmth or iciness of diplomatic relations.

In the case of the UK and Russia, we’re both UN Security Council members. UK and Russian diplomats today will be finding themselves in different international fora arguing (or agreeing) on a wide range of issues much as before.

Nonetheless, as the UK investigation into the Skripal attacks proceeds and drills down into exactly what happened and how the attacks were carried out, further UK moves against Russian interests (eg further financial sanctions) might be taken.

Remember the asymmetries in all this.

Russia has roughly half the GDP of the UK – close to the GDP of Spain. In GDP per capita terms it is of course far worse off. It is a large, poor, badly run and arguably weak country. Vladimir Putin’s bungled Ukraine and other policies have led to an appalling loss of economic growth – compare the performances of Russia and China over the past five years. Russia’s only serious economic growth policies require a steady relationship with the international financial system: just be a normal, reliable partner. That is exactly what Moscow’s policies have been making impossible.

London and other ‘Western’ partners have plenty of subtle financial options for ratcheting up the cost to Russia and to Putin’s inner circle of continuing obnoxiousness. It’s much harder for the Kremlin to retaliate against that – seizing foreign assets in Russia only shrinks again Russia’s already shrivelled reputation. Turning off the gas likewise would wreck Russia’s good reputation as a reliable energy supplier and accelerate Western moves to get away from long-term dependence on Russia’s energy. Without that steady inflow of Western money, Russia is stuffed.

Russia accordingly makes the best of a bad job and invests in areas where it does have a clear comparative advantage and a strong traditional skill-set, namely espionage and unwavering defiance (Ukraine/Syria etc). No doubt cyber warfare capability too. It also has a lively new propaganda weapon: studied post-modern world-weary insolence and social media trolling.

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So. Question!

Now that Vladimir Putin has a nice new long mandate, what is likely to happen? We seem to be in a vicious circle of mutual misery. Any hope for getting back to a virtuous circle of mutual respect?

See next posting.