28th Feb 2024

Russian diplomats in EU: unpaid wages, low morale

  • Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (l) with Russian president Vladimir Putin last year (Photo:
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Jaded Russian diplomats in dark suits are parroting failed propaganda in EU capitals, according to a grim portrait of Russian diplomacy by Estonian spies after one year of war.

Some Russians feel demotivated because of little things, such as late payment of wages due to complications arising from EU financial sanctions.

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"Russian diplomats' new daily concerns include the anxiety of not knowing whether they will receive their monthly salary in their bank account or, if not, which colleague to borrow money from," Estonia's foreign intelligence service (EFIS) said in an annual report published on Wednesday (8 February).

"This has an impact on the morale of diplomats stationed abroad. Their motivation isn't high and it's dropping, which is something we want to achieve," EFIS director Kaupo Rosin also told press the same day.

But the bigger morale drain is because the Russian foreign ministry no longer does foreign policy, making diplomats feel irrelevant, EFIS said.

"Russian diplomats were also kept in the dark about [Russian president Vladimir] Putin's plans to attack Ukraine," its report said.

"According to our information, they found out about it on the morning of 24 February [2022] through the media. Confusion and bewilderment ensued, with no one having prepared any talking points in advance," it added.

Russia is cultivating closer ties with China and African countries, but the Kremlin has all-but given up on diplomacy with Europe, Estonia indicated.

"Russian diplomats' role in the West is reduced to a monotonous repetition of propaganda lies. Russian ambassadors, finding themselves in an information black-out, are regularly forced to improvise at international meetings," said EFIS, whose annual reports are widely followed by Western security experts due to the high quality of Estonian intelligence.

"The diplomatic corps has been degraded into a situation where they have to repeat the same talking points, but have no impact on policy development," Rosin added.

Russian diplomats in Turkey, for instance, were issued speaking points designed to harm Turkey's ratification of Finland and Sweden's Nato accession, Rosin said.

But these rehearsed unconvincing old claims about Western aggression and escalation, instead of touching on the row over anti-Islamic protests in Sweden, he noted.

"I haven't seen anything regarding Islam," Rosin said.

His spy service also intercepted what it called "the outrageous and unoriginal statements that served as the starting point for the [Russian] special services' brainstorming" on how to celebrate Putin's birthday last September, in a further sign of internal decay.

"1. During his rule, Putin has increased Russia's GDP 12-fold. 2. Putin has increased Russia's gold reserves 48-fold", were among the "laughingstock" ideas, EFIS said.

Meanwhile, the dark suits come from the Russian foreign ministry's dress code, which gives a further insight into its diplomatic culture.

"The requirements for men are conservative — a dark blue or grey suit, with combinations of different jackets and trousers allowed, but only as long as the colours match," the code says, according to EFIS.

"Pockets are purely decorative and not to be used for hands. Perfume must be used in moderation; hands and nails must be well groomed. No visible tattoos or piercings are allowed", Russia's code adds.

A female diplomat must "have a conservative hairstyle appropriate for her age and position; longer than shoulder-length hair must be neatly styled, and dyeing in unnatural shades is prohibited", it adds.

"Daytime make-up must be understated ... and skirt hems must be 5 cm above or below the knee," it also says.

But EFIS added a photo of Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wearing a red dress at her TV podium which "appears to be shorter than allowed".

'Still dangerous'

For its part, Estonia ejected 13 Russian diplomats and eight embassy technical staff in January on grounds they were doing nothing to advance peace.

"In the context of Russia's ongoing full-scale war on the soil of Europe against Ukraine, it's worth considering also by other countries in the Western community," Estonian foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu told EUobserver at the time.

But Russian influence operations in Europe go beyond its flagging diplomacy, EFIS noted in its report, referring to Russian espionage and to Russian Orthodox Church outreach activities.

The Russian FSB domestic spy agency "coordinates the preservation and renewal of a fifth column, especially in countries bordering Russia with a large Russian-speaking community," Estonia warned.

EU countries collectively also expelled some 400 Russian diplomats on grounds of espionage last year.

Its embassy to the EU in Brussels, for instance, lost 19 personnel — almost half its staff.

And when asked by EUobserver on Wednesday if more expulsions were needed, Rosin said: "I would say the threat from Russian intelligence was of course affected [by the EU expulsions] but the Russians are still there and still dangerous".

The EFIS report painted a picture of an isolated Russian leader, who has centralised all decision-making in his presidential administration and who only trusts his top aides Anton Vaino and Sergey Kiriyenko, while being wary of the rise of oligarch warlords, such as mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.

But Putin has also ploughed billions into his security apparatus and there's no prospect of internal regime change, for instance in next year's presidential elections, EFIS said.

'Ageing autocrat'

"Putin still has a full grip on power," Rosin said on Wednesday.

Russia's strategic goal — to defeat Ukraine on the battlefield and to push Nato back to Cold War-era borders — also "remains unchanged," Rosin added.

Putin was expected to order a major new ground offensive in the south and east of Ukraine this year in what has become a war of "attrition", the EFIS chief said.

This could come as soon as late February or several months from now, depending on whether Putin's political or military logic prevails, giving his army more time for mobilisation, Rosin said.

"Decisions made by an ageing autocrat, only considering expert opinions based on personal whims and prejudices, are prone to miscalculation," the EFIS report said.


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