Expulsion of Russian ‘diplomats’ may strangle Moscow’s spying
Russia depends on those operatives to gather intelligence inside the countries where they serve, so the expulsions could dismantle large parts of Moscow’s spy networks and lead to a dramatic reduction in espionage and disinformation operations against the West, current and former officials said.
“The intelligence war with Russia is at full swing,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA officer who oversaw the agency’s clandestine operations in Europe and Russia. “This … will prove to be a significant dent in Russian intelligence operations in Europe.” Officials said it appeared to be the largest ever coordinated expulsion of diplomats from Europe.
“Europe has always been the Russians’ playground. They have wreaked havoc with election interference and assassinations. This is a long overdue step,” Polymeropoulos said.
In the past six weeks, European officials have asked nearly 400 Russian diplomats to leave their postings, according to a tally by The Washington Post. Notably, countries that have long tried to avoid confrontation with Moscow are among those declaring Russian diplomats persona non grata.
Expulsions by the Czech Republic, for example, which has in the past pursued a less hawkish policy toward Moscow, have left just six Russian diplomats in Prague, a point the government underscored on Wednesday. “WE FORCED 100 RUSSIAN ‘DIPLOMATS’ TO LEAVE,” said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in an Instagram post that implied the Russian officials were actually intelligence officers.
Senior European officials involved in the expulsion process said the impact would likely vary from place to place. Some countries, like Austria, are thick with international agencies that are prime targets. Other regions, like the Baltics, have large numbers of ethnic Russians who moved there during the Soviet occupation and can be targets for influence campaigns.
A senior European diplomat called it a “major disruption” to Russia’s intelligence work in Europe, potentially a permanent one. The Kremlin will have difficulty replenishing its intelligence ranks, the diplomat said.
“Reassigning and instruction will take time and may not be possible for some time, if ever,” said the diplomat who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “Retraining, redeploying, all of this is disrupted.”
On Monday, prompted by scenes of atrocities in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, where civilians were found shot after Russian forces had left, Germany declared 40 Russian diplomats “undesirable persons,” calling them threats to national security who had “worked against our freedom.” On the same day, France also announced expulsions.
In Lithuania and Latvia, Baltic countries that routinely push a hard line against the Kremlin, the governments ordered the closure of Russian consulates this week and expelled a new wave of Russian officials including the Russian ambassador to Lithuania.
“For the Russians, it is painful,” a senior Baltic diplomat said. “We closed their regional network.”
More countries followed suit, expelling dozens of Russian personnel from Denmark, Italy, Slovenia, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.
“A number of countries such as Belgium and the Czech Republic have indicated these moves are coordinated with their close neighbors and/or their allies,” said Jeff Rathke, a Europe scholar at Johns Hopkins University and a former career State Department official. “This helps to sketch the outline of a likely understanding among European countries that they will move to reduce the Russian intelligence footprint now, in response to the ruthless and brutal war Moscow is waging in Ukraine.”
Governments in Europe have been discussing for more than a month a coordinated expulsion, but some moved more quickly after the massacres in Bucha, according to officials familiar with the matter.
The United States expelled 12 Russians described as “intelligence operatives” from the Russian Permanent Mission to the United Nations on Feb. 28, days after the Russian invasion began. That move had been in the works for months. It’s not clear if the Biden administration intends to kick out more Russians.
Besides Russian officials who launch espionage operations out of embassies under the false cloak of diplomatic immunity, Moscow also has spies in Europe that are declared as such to the host government. In some cases, Russia’s top spies in Europe have been allowed to remain in their posts despite the deteriorating ties.
“The declared spies haven’t all been expelled,” said one European official familiar with the matter. “In some cases, we allow the station chief who must make do with a smaller team around him. That can remain a valuable channel.”
The last coordinated expulsion among the U.S. and its European allies followed Russia’s poisoning of a former British spy and his daughter in the English town of Salisbury in 2018. Two dozen nations ejected more than 150 Russians.
The present campaign eclipses that effort, which was the largest since the Cold War.
“It shows the seriousness of the allied response,” Polymeropoulos said. “There is always the consideration that if one country kicks out some Russians, they will reciprocate against your embassy in Moscow. The fact that so many countries decided on mass expulsions shows how the cost benefit calculation changed.”
And the effects may be long-lasting. “One can assume that in most cases the countries will not simply allow replacements to take the place of those who were expelled, which could mean an extended period of constrained Russian intelligence access to E.U. territory,” Rathke said.
Besides ousting spies, the absence of Russian political officers reporting back to Moscow can result in less Russian-manufactured disinformation targeting a host country’s citizenry, said U.S. and European diplomats.
Some Czech officials have already noticed fewer malign Russian information campaigns aimed at their internal politics since the ouster of some diplomats last year, said a diplomat familiar with the situation.
Analysts expect to see that development in other countries.
“Their expulsion will lessen Russia’s ability to spread disinformation in Europe and the United States about what is really happening in Ukraine and its ability to undermine Western attempts to retain a united front in responding to the war,” said Angela Stent, a Russia scholar at Georgetown University and a former senior intelligence official in the George W. Bush administration.
The expulsions are also likely to harm Russia’s economic ties to Europe, already suffering in the face of unprecedented sanctions. “Russian business is crumbling in Europe — adding another obstacle that makes it an absolute nightmare,” said a European official, who noted that the closure of consulates will hurt Russia’s ability to promote transnational business.
But expelling so many Russian officials, including some who are genuine diplomats, also carries risks, said one European official. “We are targeting both spies and diplomats, meaning we will have fewer channels of communications when we want to talk to each other. It’s a downside, but we think it’s appropriate given the circumstances.”
Sam Charap, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, said the expulsions were consistent with the broader efforts to sever all channels with Russia except certain crisis communication lines.
“This is an understandable response to the horrors of the war, but it could also make it harder to conduct diplomacy should the time for diplomacy eventually come,” he said.
And if Russia reciprocates, that could make it harder the European officials to understand events in Moscow.
“We have much less information coming out of Russia now generally speaking,” Charap said. “Independent media have been completely shut down. It’s even hard to find Russian state TV online. So losing Western diplomatic eyes and ears hurts even more now than before.”
Sammy Westfall contributed to this report.