Historic expulsion of Russian diplomats will limit Moscow’s espionage

In the international spy-versus-spy game, Europe has dealt Russia a potentially crippling blow.

Nearly two dozen European countries have expelled hundreds of Russian government employees from embassies and consulates since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February and recently faced charges of war crimes against civilians. A significant number are likely spies posing as diplomats, according to US and European officials.

Russia depends on these agents to gather intelligence in the countries 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 said Officer.

“The intelligence war with Russia is in full swing,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA officer who oversaw the agency’s covert operations in Europe and Russia. “This … will prove to be a significant disruption to Russian intelligence operations in Europe.” Officials said it appears to be the largest ever coordinated expulsion of diplomats from Europe.

“Europe has always been the Russian playground. They wreaked havoc with election interference and assassinations. This is a step that is long overdue,” said Polymeropoulos.

In the past six weeks, European officials have asked nearly 400 Russian diplomats to resign, according to a to match from the Washington Post. In particular, countries that have long sought to avoid confrontation with Moscow are among those declaring Russian diplomats persona non grata.

For example, expulsions by the Czech Republic, which has had a less aggressive policy towards Moscow in the past, have left only six Russian diplomats in Prague, the government underlined on Wednesday. “WE FORCED 100 RUSSIAN ‘DIPLOMATS’ TO LEAVE,” the Foreign Ministry said on Instagram post Office this implied that the Russian officials were in fact 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 full of international agencies that are prime targets. Other regions, such as the Baltics, have large numbers of ethnic Russians who moved there during Soviet occupation and may be targets of influence campaigns.

A senior European diplomat called it a “major disruption” to Russian intelligence work in Europe, possibly permanent. The Kremlin will have trouble replenishing its intelligence services, the diplomat said.

“The reassignment and re-instruction will take time and may not be possible for some time, if at all,” said the diplomat, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “Retraining, redeployment, all of that gets disrupted.”

On Monday, prompted by scenes of atrocities in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, where civilians were found shot dead after Russian forces withdrew, Germany declared 40 Russian diplomats “undesirable persons” and called them national security threats “against our freedom would have worked. ” On the same day, France also announced expulsions.

In Lithuania and Latvia, Baltic countries that routinely take a hard line against the Kremlin, governments this week ordered Russian consulates closed and expelled a new wave of Russian officials, including Russia’s ambassador to Lithuania.

“It’s painful for the Russians,” said a senior Baltic diplomat. “We have closed their regional network.”

Signs of a massacre in Bucha spark calls for a war crimes investigation

Other countries followed suit and expelled dozens of Russian employees from Denmark, Italy, Slovenia, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

“Some countries, such as Belgium and the Czech Republic, have indicated that these moves are being coordinated with their close neighbors and/or their allies,” said Jeff Rathke, a European scholar at Johns Hopkins University and a former State Department official. “This helps outline the outline of a likely understanding between European countries that they will now reduce the Russian intelligence footprint in response to the ruthless and brutal war Moscow is waging in Ukraine.”

Governments in Europe have been discussing a coordinated eviction for more than a month, but some moved faster after the Bucha massacres, officials familiar with the matter said.

The United States expelled 12 Russians it described as “secret agents” from Russia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations on February 28, days after the Russian invasion began. This step had been in the works for months. It is unclear whether the Biden administration wants to kick out more Russians.

In addition to Russian officials launching espionage operations under the guise of diplomatic immunity from embassies, Moscow also has spies in Europe who are identified as such to the host government. In some cases, Russia’s top spies in Europe have been allowed to remain in their posts despite deteriorating relations.

“The declared spies have not all been deported,” said a European official familiar with the matter. “In some cases we allow the station manager who has to make do with a smaller team around him. That can remain a valuable channel.”

The last coordinated expulsion among the US and its European allies followed the 2018 Russian poisoning of a former British spy and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. Two dozen nations more than 150 ejected Russians.

The current campaign dwarfs that effort, which was the largest since the Cold War.

“It shows the seriousness of the Allied response,” Polymeropoulos said. “There’s always a thought that if a country kicks out some Russians, they’ll retaliate against your embassy in Moscow. That so many countries have opted for mass expulsions shows how the cost-benefit calculation has changed.”

And the effect can be long-lasting. “One can assume that in most cases the countries will not simply allow replacements for the displaced persons, which could mean an extended period of restricted Russian intelligence access to EU territory,” Rathke said.

Intelligence analysts view Putin as isolated but could lash out if cornered

Aside from ousting spies, the lack of Russian political officers reporting back to Moscow may mean less Russian-manufactured disinformation is targeted at a host country’s citizens, US and European diplomats have said.

Some Czech officials have already noticed less vicious Russian information campaigns against their domestic policies since the removal of some diplomats last year, a diplomat familiar with the situation said.

Analysts also expect this development in other countries.

“Your expulsion will reduce 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 maintain a united front in responding to the war,” Angela Stent said , Russian scholar at Georgetown University and a former senior intelligence official in the George W. Bush administration.

The expulsions are also likely to affect Russia’s economic ties with Europe, which are already suffering from unprecedented sanctions. “Russia’s business is crumbling in Europe – another obstacle making it an absolute nightmare,” said a European official, noting that the closure of consulates will hurt Russia’s ability to encourage transnational deals.

But the expulsion of so many Russian officials, including some real-life diplomats, also poses risks, a European official said. “We’re targeting both spies and diplomats, which means we’ll have fewer channels of communication if we want to talk to each other. It’s a disadvantage, but we think it’s appropriate given the circumstances.”

Sam Charap, a senior political scientist at Rand Corporation, said the expulsions are consistent with broader efforts to cut all channels with Russia except certain crisis communications lines.

“This is an understandable response to the horrors of war, but it could also make it more difficult to conduct diplomacy should the time come for diplomacy,” he said.

And if Russia retaliates, it could make it harder for European officials to understand what is happening in Moscow.

“We now have much less information from Russia in general,” Charap said. “Independent media has been completely shut down. It is even difficult to find Russian state television online. So now, losing western diplomatic eyes and ears hurts even more than before.”

Sammy Westfall contributed to this report.

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