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POLAND: Salisbury Attack & Diplomat Expulsions

On March 4, Sergei Skripal – a former Russian agent of the British secret intelligence services – and his daughter were attacked with a nerve-agent in Salisbury in the UK, an attack which was determined by the British government to have been sanctioned by the Russian authorities. Following a discussion at the last EU Council summit, 14 EU member states including Poland took punitive measures by expelling Russian diplomats. Donald Tusk announced that further measures are likely in the upcoming days and weeks. Similar actions were also taken by the US Government, which expelled over 60 Russian diplomats from the US. However, so far, Russia has refused to take responsibility for this attack.

The attempted murder of Sergei Skripal was the second major public attack on former Russian operatives in the UK – in 2006, Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with a radioactive substance, polonium. A number of other former Russian enemies of President Putin have met with unexplained deaths in the UK as well. The Skripal attack has met with an unprecedented reaction because it itself represents an unprecedented breaking of international agreements by Russia through the latter’s use of chemical, radiological and biological weapons.

Today, four members of Russia’s diplomatic mission to Poland were announced persona non grata, which means that they are expected to leave the country – although they will probably be replaced by others in due course. Poland’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz stated that Poland “is aware that Russia can react similarly to what happened in the UK’s case, and our diplomats could be asked to leave the Russian Federation. There is an actual cost to our actions, but we believe that in this case showing solidarity with the UK and other members of the EU and NATO is the most important”.

Poland has often warned international partners of the potential security threat posed by Russia. Other partners usually concurred, but until recently the multifaceted Russia threat – even despite aggression in Ukraine and the Crimea – struggled to be at the top of the international agenda. Warsaw has often feared that the EU pays too much attention to other security challenges, overlooking the ongoing war and economic crisis that have engulfed its closest eastern neighbour, Ukraine. The UK has often supported Poland’s attitude in the matter, although some commentators have argued that Brexit could undermine the bloc’s fragile attitude towards the Kremlin. Therefore PM May’s actions and statements, as well as the EU and NATO solidarity that followed, are bound to be met with satisfaction in Warsaw.

Commentators argue that the Kremlin’s motivations, at least partially, lie in the desire of testing the EU’s and NATO’s strength and resolve. In this view, while the EU is engulfed in a ‘polycrisis’ and the Trump administration is being seen as less involved in NATO matters, President Putin is hoping to test the strength of the alliance. In this context, it is important to remember that many of Russia’s actions are hybrid in form but ultimately military in nature. Thus while the Kremlin is trying to undermine European unity and morale through unconventional methods, the responses should also go beyond the conventional. Most importantly, it is vital to understand the political divisions on which Putin is seeking to capitalize, and thus to counteract them. It remains to be seen however, whether Western measures will go beyond these current steps.