Explainer: Should Russian ambassadors be asked to leave?

Russia’s ambassador to Denmark, Vladimir Barbin, was summoned to a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday afternoon, the ministry said.

The meeting was a response to Barbin signing a recognition of the Ukrainian territories of Luhansk and Donetsk as Russian republics on Monday evening.

In light of this, and of Irish and New Zealand politicians calling for the expulsion of Russian diplomats from their national soil, you may be wondering how and why diplomats can be expelled from their host country.

In fact, EU ministers decided as a bloc not to expel Russian ambassadors but “this and other possible diplomatic measures remain on the table”.

Here’s why.

Diplomatic immunity explained
Diplomats and their personnel are guaranteed diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. A certain amount of espionage is tolerated under the ruse of diplomacy – particularly between the US and Russia – but ordinarily, each country just denies the allegations.

Two privileges delineate diplomatic immunity. Firstly, the “inviolability of the diplomatic agent” protects the ambassador, his personnel, his dwelling and his documents from being searched, intruded upon, damaged or seized.

Secondly, “immunity from jurisdiction” affords the ambassador immunity from civil and criminal jurisdiction in the state in which he functions.

Together, these guarantees allow diplomats to carry out their duties: transacting business between host and sending state; and acting as a vehicle for government discourse. 

There is a caveat: the diplomat must respect the host state’s internal security, doing nothing to endanger the receiving state’s safety.

Even if they defy this rule – by spying or otherwise breaching the UN Convention, for example – they are still protected from jurisdiction. In this case, the host state can declare them a Persona Non Grata.

Persona Non Grata explained
If a person is declared Persona Non Grata, they must be recalled by the sending state. Diplomatic immunity protects from incarceration, so declaring an agent Persona Non Grata is the only effective way to inhibit foreign missions or suspected spy networks before they can do any grave harm.

According to Article 9 of the Vienna Convention: “the receiving State may at any time and without having to explain its decision, notify the sending State that the head of the mission or any other member of the staff is Persona Non Grata.” In other words, the procedure itself constitutes sufficient legal justification for expulsion.

Usually, the expulsion of a diplomat in one country will result in a counter-expulsion in the other. Since this handicaps the international activity of both states, governments are typically careful when dealing with embassy and consular staff.

35 ‘diplomats’ expelled after 2016 US election-meddling
Nevertheless, expulsions have been on the rise in the past ten years – notably amongst Russian consular missions.

In 2016, the Obama administration expelled 35 Russian intelligence operatives in response to Russian interference in the US presidential election. In the last five years, the US has expelled over 100 Russian ‘diplomats’.

2018 nerve-agent attack prompts mass expulsions
In 2018, over 100 Russian suspected intelligence agents posing as diplomats in western countries were expelled in a co-ordinated international response to the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence official who acted as a double agent for the UK government.

Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Russian-developed Novichok chemical nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury on March 4.

The Russian government called the expulsions “a provocative gesture” and vowed to retaliate – even launching a poll on Twitter asking which US consulate in Russia to close.

2021 Czech expulsions trigger NATO solidarity
In April 2021, the Czech Republic announced it would expel 18 Russian embassy employees identified as intelligence operatives, after Czech authorities determined that the Russian intelligence service was behind a deadly 2014 warehouse blast that left two people dead.

Russia responded by expelling 20 Czech diplomats from Russia, effectively wiping out the much-smaller Czech mission in Russia. When the Russians rebuffed a Czech request to reinstall some diplomatic staff, Prague ordered more than 60 Russian embassy staff to leave the country.

In solidarity with the Czech Republic, a slew of NATO’s central European and Baltic member states also expelled Russian diplomats. This constituted the second ‘solidarity expulsion’ conducted by NATO members after the 2018 Novichok expulsions.

What does this mean?
NATO and the EU are increasingly coming together and utilising different foreign policy tools to oppose and express disapproval of Russian activities.

While they appear dramatic, for the most part expulsions are relatively low-risk examples of political gesturing. Nevertheless, they signal a communication breakdown via the closing of diplomatic channels and limiting of consular services.

Why is this relevant ?
As of today, only a few politicians have called for Russian diplomatic expulsions in response to the Ukraine invasion. Instead, Australia, the UK, the US, the EU and Canada have said that they will personally sanction Putin and Russia’s foreign affairs minister, Sergei Lavrov.

Many members of the Russian Security Council, Russia’s parliament, and Russian oligarchs have already been sanctioned.

New Zealand’s foreign affairs spokesman, Gerry Brownlee, has called on the government to expel Russia’s top diplomat from the country and to have New Zealand’s ambassador recalled from Moscow.

There is also a smattering of calls from Irish politicians to expel their Russian diplomats, but Ireland’s minister for justice, Helen McEntee, countered that it “would risk a complete breakdown in diplomatic relations at a time when channels should be kept open”.

A delicate game
Here, McEntee pinpoints the reason why, despite the devastating attacks on Ukraine, there have been no serious talks of expelling Russian diplomats – though outrage towards Putin’s regime has already led to extraordinary international measures coming into play.

While EU ministers say expulsions “remain on the table”, it’s a delicate game: isolating Russia further may be a dangerous move.