Perhaps out of a political calculation to show he is not captive of Russian kompromat, Donald Trump took an unusually strong measure to show solidarity with Britain over the nerve-agent attempted assassination of former double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
The United States announced the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats as undeclared intelligence officers, and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle. As the city is home to Boeing and Microsoft, this further inhibits Russian contact with America’s IT and high-tech industry, following Barack Obama’s closure of the consulate in San Francisco, close to Silicon Valley.
A similar number are being kicked out of other Atlantic nations, including France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Canada. Britain had earlier expelled 23 Russians. On Tuesday, Malcolm Turnbull found two undeclared spooks to expel from Australia. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern said she would do the same if she could find any in Wellington. The move has not been followed by countries in Asia, even US allies such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore.
Julie Bishop hauled in Russian ambassador Grigory Logvinov, but he wasn’t wilting under the famous basilisk stare. In jocular media interviews, he asserted he had no spies in his embassy and denied Russia had poisoned Skripal. “Scotland Yard said it would take weeks, if not months, to clear this case,” he said. “That is why how can one say for sure it was kind of mysterious, a Russian agent, to poison Skripal?” This was all “standard Russian propaganda”, Bishop commented. “I expect nothing less from the Russian ambassador.”
Analysts wonder where Vladimir Putin’s next needling of the West will occur. One pointer could be the tour of the Balkans begun this week by the Russian ultra-nationalist motorcycle gang calling themselves the “Night Wolves”.
About 20 members turned up in the semi-autonomous region of Bosnia called Republika Srpska, on what they called a study tour to “research the cultural influence of the Russian empire in the Balkans”. Bosnian authorities in Sarajevo declared the group a security threat and banned the entry of the Night Wolves’ leader, Alexander “The Surgeon” Zaldostanov, but the local Serbs may disregard this.
It was reported in January that a militia named “Serbian Honour” had trained in a Russian-funded “humanitarian centre” in Serbia as a paramilitary to support a long-threatened separatist referendum to leave Bosnia. Republika Srpska authorities were reported to have bought more than 4000 military-grade automatic rifles in the past two years.
Stirring up pan-Slavism and Greater Serbian nationalism is seen as one of Moscow’s strategies to stop the remaining Balkan holdouts, especially Serbia, from joining the European Union and NATO.
Students silence Trump
Is this the start of an American Spring? The turnout by hundreds of thousands of school students last weekend in protests against lax gun controls signals a tempestuous year leading up to the congressional midterm elections in November.
They filled Pennsylvania Avenue, the ceremonial route from the White House to the Capitol, and public spaces in 390 of the 435 House of Representatives districts across the country, with survivors of the Florida high school massacre six weeks earlier taking the microphones.
Donald Trump wasn’t in town. He’d flown down to his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida, maintaining an unusual Twitter silence. Before leaving, Trump had signed a major budget bill that was seen as the last chance this year to act on his earlier promises after the Florida massacre, by attaching riders to require harder background checks on buyers of firearms, restrict sales of assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, and raise the age requirement for gun ownership. It did none of these.
Images of teenagers and younger children pleading to feel safe in their schools were hard for gun advocates to deride. But the National Rifle Association did its best. Its online channel NRATV kept up nonstop disparagement.
“This is the event that is supposedly being put on by children,” said one host, Grant Stinchfield. “It is not. It is being organised by a group of often violent women who speak a lot of rhetoric and anti-gun rhetoric. They support cop killers.” If someone with a weapon had taken out the gunman, “no one would know your names”, said Colion Noir. “These kids ought to be marching against their own hypocritical belief structures … The only reason we’ve ever heard of them is because the guns didn’t come soon enough.”
Still, the demonstrations promise a wave of volunteers for candidates supporting gun control in the November elections.
The conjunction of the Trump brand and the Republican Party has become even more toxic, as the shock victory of a Democrat in the Pennsylvania rust belt showed in a congressional byelection this month.
Trump had meanwhile thrown a few bombs into the international arena, notably by going ahead with his promise to apply more tariffs on Chinese goods, and by replacing his national security adviser with perhaps the most hawkish figure in Washington.
Army general H. R. McMaster followed predecessor general Mike Flynn out the National Security Council door, though he had lasted some 14 months in the job instead of three weeks and is not having to face any charges resulting from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian political meddling. But it was one more sane head out the door, and his replacement, John Bolton, is regarded with true alarm in foreign policy circles.
Bolton is another chicken-hawk, who avoided Vietnam service by enlisting in the National Guard but is keen on urging others into war. He still defends the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has urged pre-emptive strikes on North Korea, and wants the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran torn up. Recently he was recorded telling Iranian exiles to expect regime change in their homeland by the end of this year. The newly nominated secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, shares his views on the Iran agreement.
It may have been no coincidence that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un immediately got his dad’s old armoured train rolling for his first foreign trip since taking power in 2011, to Beijing. China confirmed Kim had been “invited” for a secretive four-day “unofficial” visit, and in talks with Xi Jinping had said his goal was “denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula. Presumably, Xi wanted to know what Kim will offer and demand in his summits with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in in late April and with Trump in late May.
Trump said Kim’s rush to see China still has his back showed “maximum pressure” is working. But if Trump wants Kim to believe any promises he makes, he can hardly withdraw from the Iran deal, which the other Western parties say is working, by not renewing the US sanctions waiver when it expires on May 12.
It is unknown whether any staff of the Australian embassy in Moscow were rash enough to repeat the bet the late Bill Morrison made with Richard Woolcott in 1954 that there would be no retaliation for the expulsion of Soviet diplomats from Canberra over the Petrov affair.
Morrison promised to moon the Kremlin if that were the case. Consequently late one night a taxi pulled up briefly in Red Square for Morrison to drop his dacks. It was no career stopper: Morrison became defence minister and ambassador to Jakarta, and Woolcott the secretary of the foreign affairs department.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 31, 2018 as "Mr Logvinov said, we will bear-hug you ".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription