Relations between Russia and much of the West reached a new low on Monday, with the expulsion of over 100 Russian diplomats from two dozen countries around the world. The unprecedented expulsions were publicized on Monday with a series of coordinated announcements issued from nearly every European capital, as well as from Washington, Ottawa and Canberra. By the early hours of Tuesday, the number of Russian diplomatic expulsions had reached 118 —not counting the 23 Russian so-called “undeclared intelligence officers” that were expelled from Britain last week. Further expulsions of Russian diplomats are expected in the coming days.
It is indeed difficult to overstate the significance of this development in the diplomatic and intelligence spheres. Monday’s announcements signified the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence personnel (intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover) in history, and is remarkable even by Cold War standards. In the United States, the administration of President Donald Trump expelled no fewer than 60 Russian diplomats and shut down the Russian consulate in Seattle. Such a move would have been viewed as aggressive even for Mr. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is known for her hardline anti-Russian stance. In Europe, the move to expel dozens of Russian envoys from 23 different countries —most of them European Union members— was a rare act of unity that surprised European observers as much as it did the Russians.
RUSSIA’S ESPIONAGE CAPABILITY
However, in considering the unprecedented number of diplomatic expulsions from an intelligence point of view, the question that arises is, how will these developments affect Russia’s espionage capabilities abroad? If the Kremlin did indeed authorize the attempted assassination of the Russian defector Sergei Skripal, it must be assumed that it expected some kind of reaction from London, possibly in the form of limited diplomatic expulsions. The resulting worldwide wave of expulsions must have caught Russian intelligence planners by surprise. There is little question, therefore, that these are difficult hours for the GRU, Russia’s military-run Main Intelligence Directorate, and the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. These agencies will be losing as much as two thirds of their official-cover officers in Europe and North America. The last time this happened on such a massive scale was during World War II, as Soviet embassies across Europe were unceremoniously shut down by the advancing Nazi forces.
WHO NEEDS AN EMBASSY?
Nevertheless, as the Russian embassy in London tweeted on March 13, in response to rumors of pending diplomatic expulsions of Russians by Britain, “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”. This will prove to be the case in the coming days, as Moscow will proceed to expel dozens —probably even hundreds— of Western diplomats from its soil. Russia has traditionally stationed more intelligence officers in its Western embassies than Western countries have inside Russia. This means that the Russian response to Monday’s diplomatic expulsions will virtually decimate entire stations of several European intelligence agencies on Russian soil, and will even cut into the foreign diplomatic community in several Russian cities. On balance, these tit-for-tat expulsions will hurt the West more than Russia, because it is more difficult for the West to run espionage operations inside Russia than it is for Russia to spy in the West. Western societies are relatively open and are characterized by limited and unobtrusive governments. This allows countries like Russia to run spy operations with little resistance, even in the absence of embassy personnel operating in relative safety under diplomatic immunity. The same cannot be said about intelligence operations carried out by Western agencies inside Russia, where the role of diplomatic personnel is usually central. Russia is a relatively closed society, where working as an intelligence officer without diplomatic immunity is at best perilous. Consequently, diplomatic cover is far more useful for Western intelligence services working inside Russia, than for Russian intelligence services working in the West.
WILL RUSSIA’S COVERT OPERATIONS BE AFFECTED?
Undoubtedly, the expulsions of Russian diplomats —presumably most of them undeclared intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover— will send a strong political message to Moscow and will disrupt the Kremlin’s intelligence activities in the West. But they will have a limited effect on covert operations of the kind that was witnessed in England on March 4, when Sergei Skripal and his daughter were nearly poisoned to death. These operations, which are extremely complex and meticulously planned, are rarely conducted by embassy personnel. The latter may provide a marginal supporting role, but the bulk of these activities are carried out by large teams of specialists who are dispatched directly from Russia and are not associated with the diplomatic community. It follows that the latest expulsions of diplomats will have little —if any— effect on Russia’s ability to conduct covert operations against dissidents, known double agents, or other targets abroad.
Last but not least, Russia’s most damaging intelligence operations against Western targets in recent years have been carried out in the online environment. The meddling by Russian intelligence services in the 2016 US presidential election has undeniably wreaked havoc in the American political life and has dangerously deepened pre-existing divisions in the country. In this operation —arguably Russia’s most effective against its American arch-rival in the post-Cold War era— the role of spies was distinctly marginal. Much of it was designed, organized and implemented from windowless computer labs in drab government buildings in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Impressive as they may be, the latest diplomatic expulsions of Russian diplomats will do little to stop such damaging and potentially lethal intelligence operations taking place remotely.
I do not mean to suggest that the massive wave of diplomatic expulsions is insignificant or harmless for Russian interests. Moscow never expected that its decision to kill Skripal would cause it to lose nearly 150 official-cover intelligence officers from some of the world’s most important geographical collection targets. But Russia has a long tradition of espionage that dates from Tsarist times, and has suffered far deeper wounds in its history. It will recover and will continue its secret work, as always with a mixed record of failure and success. In responding to the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, the West has shown rare unity and resolve. But if it is to prevail in this prolonged, unpredictable conflict, it will need to remain united and continue to act collectively. The coming weeks will show whether that is a realistic hope.
► Author: Joseph Fitsanakis