By Thomas Armbruster, former US Ambassador:
Being declared “persona non grata” is the diplomatic equivalent of being shown the “red card” in soccer. It’s game over. It’s often seen as a badge of honor in the State Department, because American diplomats are usually declared persona non grata after doing something good, like meeting with dissidents or criticizing a thin-skinned host government. In 2008, US Ambassador Philip Goldberg was “PNG’d” from Bolivia by the country’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales. In a statement, Morales said, “Without fear of the empire, I declare Mr. Goldberg, the US ambassador, ‘persona non grata.’ He is conspiring against democracy and seeking the division of Bolivia.” More than likely, Ambassador Goldberg was doing his job, reporting on events in the country and meeting with leaders across the political spectrum.
Similarly, President Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats is part of the age-old diplomatic game of tit-for-tat retaliation. Sometimes in this game of chess, a pawn is removed—a third secretary or vice consul—signaling “we know what you are up to and we don’t like it.” But expelling 35 diplomats is a major move indicating we are moving into new territory. Putin is likely looking several moves ahead now. By not immediately retaliating against Obama, he leaves that move open to use against the Trump administration if he is not getting what he wants in terms of Western sanctions for Russian misadventures. For Putin, the question of whether Trump will really go to bat for the Baltics may still be open. In any case, his “taking the high ground” seems to be a clever strategic and PR move, especially since it was his government that started this row with the political interference in the US election.
Obama also denied access to a couple of Russian recreational properties, one on Maryland’s eastern shore. The US also uses a couple of dachas around Moscow to get away from the city. When I first went to Russia during the Cold War, there was a near dacha and a far dacha, and American families could sign up to use them for weekend cross-country skiing trips. There was a rowboat too. I know because when an American diplomat and I took it downstream, we debated whether we could leave the rowboat on shore while we took a hike. The USSR was proud to say that their crime levels were far below the West. We left it and it was stolen.
At the time, I worked at the Anglo-American School as a gym teacher. At one point in this diplomatic flap, there was talk that the Anglo-American School would be closed by the Russian government. My wife was a librarian there during our tour in Moscow in the 1990s, and our kids both went to AAS. All of our Facebook accounts recently lit up with outrage when the rumors hit that the school was finally to be closed in retaliation for Obama’s expulsion of the Russian diplomats. Yes, diplomats are pawns in the diplomatic game, but families should be off-limits. And the Anglo-American School serves other nationalities besides Americans and even accepts Russian students. It was a relief to find out that the Russians were not taking that step, and again, it would not have played well in the international media, so smart move, Mr. Putin.
In some cases, it is not the host government but rather a diplomat covered by diplomatic immunity who wants to make a fast getaway. Traffic accidents are classic examples. In some cases, the host governments and sending government agree that diplomatic immunity should be stripped so that a diplomat involved in a drunk driving accident, for example, can be prosecuted, as happened in 1997 when a Republic of Georgia diplomat was found to be at fault for an accident that killed a Maryland teenager. Gueorgui Makharadze was sentenced to seven to 21 years and served some of his time in the US and some in Georgia before being released. In other cases, the diplomat involved is put on a plane and headed home before those wheels are put in motion. As consul general in Vladivostok, I initiated compensation for a young Russian man paralyzed in an accident involving an American diplomat. “Sovereign immunity” meant that the US did not have to pay, but ultimately the US did the right thing and provided compensation.
My favorite diplomatic immunity story comes from Finland. An ambassador from an unspecified country was driving home from a party when he was stopped by Finnish police. He was drunk but insisted that his diplomatic immunity allowed him to drive, even after the Finns offered to chauffeur him. When he refused, the police said, “Fine, one second,” and they proceeded to shoot his tires out and wished him a nice ride home.
It’s not certain that this diplomatic dust up will end so neatly for the US and Russia. Both sides have plenty of baggage, and the honeymoon—if there is one—is not likely to last long. It’s too bad. A relationship built on shared economic and security interests is far more interesting for diplomats than a frozen relationship. The US and Russia have cooperated successfully in war and peace, most notably in space, and could be partners on a range of issues today if there was enough goodwill on both sides. That will take time, effort, and patience. Maybe next time we’ll only have to play the yellow card, but interfering in an American election sure seems like a red card violation to me.
Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.