I notice there have been a few recalls of ambassadors recently as a result of the Ukraine situation. Is this a fairly common practice as a pressure tactic or bluff, or is it a strong indicator of an upcoming conflict?
Somewhere in between.
It’s kind of a vestigial measure. Back when communications were more difficult and travel times between countries longer, Ambassadors actually played a non-trivial role in setting foreign policy with the countries they were assigned to. Recalling them meant that the country in question was done negotiating, and was going to resort to some sort of unilateral move (like, for example, starting a war).
Nowadays, when something “big” comes up, decisions are made at the top level or two of government, and the Ambassador isn’t really needed to communicate them. Obama can just call Putin on the phone. But recalling Ambassadors has stuck around anyways as a sort of symbolic measure, and has migrated from being a sort of last step before the shooting starts to a fairly minor measure that gets unleashed whenever there’s a diplomatic spat.
Google “recall ambassador” and set the seach so it skips results from the last week (otherwise you’ll get swamped with results from the current Ukranian fracas), and you’ll see the last few years have featured countries recalling ambassadors over all sorts of relatively minor arguments.
Yeah, these days ambassadors get recalled over all sorts of fairly trivial diplomatic sqabbles. Just recently, Venezuela expelled the US ambassador for, uh, something or other. (Venezuela has major internal problems at the moment, and in all likelyhood the post-Chavez government is trying to shift blame away from themselves.)
It’s the international version of “I’m taking my ball and going home!”.