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Why is Russia sanctioning Irish politicians?

The interesting thing about the sanctions imposed by Russia on Irish politicians is not the fact of them, but the stated reason: The Kremlin’s foreign affairs arm, in its official statement, denounced Irish leaders for “running a propaganda campaign against Russia”.

Not for aiding Ukraine (because in military terms, we have not) or for being a member of NATO, which we are not, but simply for saying mean things about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Of course, in diplomacy, only the most naïve would ever believe that the stated reason for doing things is the real reason: Did the USA really invade Iraq to “protect democracy”? Are Ireland’s objections to Brexit really based on “the good Friday agreement?” C’mon.

In almost all circumstances, diplomacy is about finding a pretext for a thing you wanted to do anyway. And in this case, the pretext is weak sauce.

It is also, patently, intended for an Irish audience, and not a Russian one. There will be no in-depth discussions on Russian television about its diplomatic relations with Ireland, because to Russia, Ireland does not really matter. The objective is to get us to talk about it, and to provide some rhetorical support to those who claim that Irish neutrality is under threat from this Government. “See?” we’re supposed to say, “Russia considers us a co-belligerent”. So maybe we should take a step back.

If that’s what you are thinking, reading about these developments, then that is what the Kremlin wants you thinking.

So how should Ireland react? Not at all, is the answer.

The bottom line here is that, painful as it is economically, the western strategy in the Russia-Ukraine war is working. Russia is in retreat across the front lines, and has suffered two humiliating and enormous defeats in the past two months, in Kharkiv and Kherson. It has been forced to mobilise, and even at that most military experts now agree that the conventional balance of forces in theatre now slightly favours the Ukrainians, who have more seasoned troops and access to slightly more modern armaments. Russia is lashing out at Ireland and other countries from a position of weakness, not a position of strength.

Lacking the ability to pursue the war militarily, Russia’s best hope is now to win it politically, by undermining western support for Ukraine. In this respect, ironically, they have had vastly more success than they have had on the battlefield: There are elements in the new American House Majority that would defund Ukraine entirely, and though they will likely not prevail, funding for Ukraine won’t be as automatic once that majority takes power. Similarly, in Europe, Russian hopes rest on a long, cold, dark, and expensive winter without Russian gas. Ironically, the weather is thus far thwarting them: It’s been unseasonably mild.

So the strategy is constant gentle pressure: You are losing your neutrality. You are paying more for gas. You are suffering needlessly for Ukraine. Eventually, the Kremlin hopes, someone will crack, and push Ukraine to negotiate for a peace that allows Putin to come away with some kind of win.

This is also why Ukraine is attacking as fast as it can: That country presumably knows that its fortunes rest on keeping the west behind it, but that such support cannot endure forever. Eventually, someone will crack and call overtly for Zelenskyy to negotiate. The Russians won’t mind if that someone is Ireland, or the Netherlands, or Denmark: So long as someone gets the conversation going. From Ukraine’s point of view, the emphasis now is on pushing the Russians back as quickly as possible to weaken their hand.

By the way – because I haven’t to my knowledge annoyed readers this week, and some people seem to think I’ve a quota to fill in that respect – I’d make this point: A few weeks ago, when the Ukrainian Ambassador to Ireland rightly and accurately criticised the Irish Government for taking refugees without a plan to house them, there was outrage in Ireland about her perceived ingratitude, and her insult to Ireland, and her perceived refusal to acknowledge Ireland’s role as a neutral country.

By contrast, I detected a notable lack of outrage about Russia’s overt and pointed insult to Ireland yesterday. The Russians have reason to be grateful too, by the way: We have weapons we could have sent to aid the Ukrainians, and kill Russians, and we have not done it because we are neutral. In many ways, Ireland has been one of the least hostile countries in western Europe to the Russian invasion, and is certainly indirectly responsible for many fewer Russian battlefield deaths than the British, French, Germans, or Italians are.

You’d think they might be thankful. But it’s not about that: It’s about giving another argument to their western sympathisers, and allowing them to say “we have gone too far to help Ukraine”.

Or maybe you genuinely believe that the Kremlin is awake at night with worry about what the Irish Government says.

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