Ireland has engaged in ‘unacceptable rhetoric that has no place in politics’ – The Irish Times

“They’ll be here soon,” an embassy official says as ambassador Yuriy Filatov looks at his watch.

“You will probably see them,” says the ambassador. “I am not angry with these people. I feel pity for them because they are simply brainwashed to the utmost extent.”

Filatov is referring to the people who gather outside the Russian embassy every day to protest against the country’s five-month-old invasion of Ukraine.

The sprawling complex on Orwell Road in south Dublin has been the object of what Filatov calls “psychological harassment” since the start of the war, or the “special military operation” as he insists on calling it.

There is almost a sense of siege in the embassy. Nothing like the sieges of Mariupol or Severodonetsk by Russia’s military, of course, but a palpable sense of tension nonetheless.

The entrance is surrounded by a steel barrier, and a garda car remains permanently parked outside. Patches of red paint, thrown by protesters months ago, are still visible on the outer walls. The golden eagle, which was removed from the entrance after being vandalised, still hasn’t been replaced.

Gloomy security men stand post at the gate directly across from a hedge covered in blue and yellow ribbons. Almost every house on either side of the complex flies the Ukrainian flag.

It’s not just protests. Earlier this year the embassy complained it could not heat its offices as no one would sell it fuel and, on March 7th, a man drove a religious supplies truck through the front gates. Hence the barriers.

“Well, there’s been some instances, especially in the first period of in the early spring, that we have experienced some difficulties, but we managed to resolve that,” says Filatov, a veteran bureaucrat who started his career as a Soviet Union diplomat in Washington. “By the way, we receive many messages and letters here at the embassy from people who actually support our point of view and our thinking.”

Regardless, according to diplomatic sources, Russian officials have found themselves increasingly isolated from the Dublin embassy circuit. Invitations to events and parties, including those hosted by the Department of Foreign Affairs, have largely dried up. When Filatov is invited, some diplomats go out of their way to avoid talking to him.

“There’s a sense he has gone further in his statements than he needed to, further than Russian ambassadors in other European countries have gone,” said an official in one EU embassy.

In the news

Ambassadors tend to work in the background. But even before the war, Filatov had made a name for himself. His statements defending planned Russian naval exercises in the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone — “a big hoopla about nothing” — and his insistence the huge military build-up on Ukraine’s borders was merely defensive meant he was rarely far from the news cycle.

After the war started, he sat for an interview with RTÉ’s David McCullagh, who put it to him that he was an “apologist for slaughter”. The clip went viral around the world.

Filatov’s assistant is worried about a repeat of the RTÉ interview but the ambassador insists he “loves provocative questions”. Nevertheless, there’s a hint of annoyance in his voice when it’s put to him that he lied to the Irish people when he said the idea of ​​a Russian invasion was “fantasy” and “insane”.

“I have had more than 40 years of my career and have never, ever had anyone question my integrity. And I respectfully do not accept that right now,” he says. “But basically the idea is they try to make a whipping boy out of the Russian ambassador.”

He sats when he declared Russia was not going to invade, he was correct based on the situation at the time. “I always told everyone who asked me that it’s not in the interest of Russia, neither political nor economic nor anything else, to undertake a military action against Ukraine.”

But Russia didn’t have a choice, he says. “The overall strategic interest implied that we had to take care of it unless it just gets out of hand completely.”

Filatov denies he lied. “I didn’t know. Nobody consults with an ambassador when to make certain very decisive political decisions at the highest levels of government.”

Relations between Ireland and Russia are at a low point, the ambassador says. The formerly positive relationship has been “squandered by the superficial and mistaken position by the Irish Government on the subject of Ukraine.”

This goes back to “the pivotal year of 2014”, when he claims the EU and US started using Ukraine “as a beachhead against Russia”. In fact, 2014 was the year Russian-backed forces took over Crimea and the Donbas following the Euromaidan protests that led to the ousting of Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych.

Ireland bears a “huge share” of responsibility for the current situation, Filatov believes, due to its support of Russian sanctions. He is also annoyed that when Russia tried to negotiate with the Irish Government, Irish officials responded that they were united with other EU countries. “And that was, again, another mistake.”

Asked if he feels Russia has been treated unfairly by Ireland, the ambassador says Dublin has treated the national interests of Ireland “unfairly”.

“If you are serious about your own national interests, and not the interests of the United States or the UK, I would think it would be good, in the Irish national interest, to have a good, respectful relationship with Russia,” he says .

“We always said that we’re interested in good relations with Ireland, but only as much as Ireland itself is interested in good relations with us.”

Diplomats expelled

Ireland has engaged in “unacceptable rhetoric which in my mind does not have any place in politics”, says Filatov. Dublin has already expelled four Russian diplomats this year after Taoiseach Micheál Martin said “their activities are not in accordance with the international standards of diplomatic behaviour” — political terminology for espionage. In turn, two Irish diplomats were expelled from Moscow.

The planned staging of naval exercises off Co Cork were much ado about nothing, and other countries regularly conduct naval operations in the Irish EEZ, says Filatov.

The exercises were very small and involved just one ship, according to the ambassador. His adviser corrects him that it was four ships. “But basically it was one ship for two days with some missile tests,” says Filatov.

Russia later moved the exercises out of the Irish EEZ, ostensibly after Irish fishermen visited the embassy and said it would impact their operations. Some security experts, including former Defense Forces chief of staff Mark Mellet, have called this a classic example of “hybrid warfare”. Negotiating directly with the fishermen served to undermine the Irish Government, they say. “I do not support conspiracy theories,” says Filatov.

He repeatedly points out the support he receives from Irish people and welcomes a letter to The Irish Times by Sabina Higgins, wife of President Michael D Higgins, calling for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine. “I wouldn’t want to intrude in internal affairs, but the point of view, it makes sense. She’s against war. We’re all against war.”

Throughout the interview, the ambassador frequently reverts back to well-worn Russian justifications for the invasion of Ukraine. Some are generous interpretations of events, others are outright falsehoods. The protests of 2014 were a coup, the Kyiv administration banned the Russian language and Ukraine is being used as a proxy by the West, he says.

When it’s pointed out it was Russia that invaded Ukraine, he waves the remark away.

Irish public opinion is being “hyped up” by propaganda, he says. The Irish Times comes in for specific criticism. “This is kind of a psychological operations thing.”

He is quick with answers when accusations of Russian targeting of civilians are put to him. Last week’s missile strikes on the port of Odesa, just one day after a deal was reached to allow the safe export of grain supplies from the facility, was targeting naval ships and cargoes of imported American Harpoon missiles, he says. “What we have been very careful to do is not to target any civilian infrastructure, no matter what your paper says or other media in the West says.”

Espionage hub

The Orwell Road complex has long been believed to operate as an espionage hub as well as an embassy. Security services suspect it is used to intercept signals as well as a base for agents tasked with influencing or blackmailing influential Irish figures.

The four diplomats expelled in March were not the first Russians to be named as spies by the government. On two previous occasions Dublin has ordered suspected agents to leave the country and, in 2020, the Government denied permission on national security grounds for the extension and upgrading of the embassy buildings.

Filatov laughs when I say an official from another embassy had advised me to leave my phone behind when visiting (“None of us bring our phones when we go,” they said).

“Do you see anything here?” the ambassador asks. The embassy building is very old and simply needs to be upgraded, he says, gesturing to the brown Soviet-era wood paneling in the room. “I mean, it’s ridiculous. It has been ridiculous from the very beginning.”

As the interview concludes, an official makes a joke about the KGB. Outside on the road, the protesters are already starting to gather.

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