What does Russia’s diplomatic past say about its present?

Written as a job application task in February 2021.

Last week Russia expelled three European diplomats for allegedly participating in protests in support of Alexei Navalny. This week their home countries of Germany, Poland and Sweden retaliated with the expulsion of Russian diplomats, reminding the world of this time-proven tactic for addressing mutual grievances, or baring their teeth, in times of crisis. While the exact numbers of proclaimed personas non grata remain unknown, there are other ways in which countries can flex their muscles. An overview of Russia’s diplomatic past reveals a long tradition of strong foreign representation.

According to Correlates of War data on diplomatic exchanges between 1817 and 2005, the number of Russian embassies or consulates abroad had been rising slowly and remained below 50 until the end of World War II. In the second half of the 20th century this number more than tripled. Foreign representations in Russia followed the same trend, however, in the past two hundred years exceeded the reach of Russia’s influence only once, in 1950. At other recorded times, Russian diplomats dominated.

Today, Russia maintains a presence in the form of an embassy or consulate in 149 countries. It remains well represented in large countries such as China or the United States but it is also strong in Italy or Ukraine. Meanwhile, 151 countries hold their forts in Russia. The current situation is a fairly equal yet delicate balance. Apart from diplomatic presence abroad, the strength of mutual cooperation can also be signalled by smaller gestures, such as closing consulates outside the capital city. In December 2020, the United States took this path in Russia when they decided to close or suspend offices in Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg, keeping only its embassy in Moscow.

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