October 1, 2022

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Historic expulsion of Russian diplomats will reduce Moscow’s spying

Historic expulsion of Russian diplomats will reduce Moscow's spying

In the international game of espionage versus spy, Europe has dealt Russia a potentially fatal blow.

Nearly two dozen European countries have expelled hundreds of Russian government employees from embassies and consulates since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, most recently accused of war crimes against civilians. According to US and European officials, a large number of spies impersonate diplomats.

Russia relies on these agents to gather intelligence within the countries in which they serve, current and former officials said, so the expulsions could dismantle large parts of Moscow’s spy networks and lead to a significant reduction in espionage and disinformation against the West.

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

Europe has always been the Russians’ playground. They wreaked havoc with election interference and assassinations. This is a long-overdue step, Polymeropoulos said.

In the past six weeks, European officials have asked about 400 Russian diplomats to quit their jobs, according to outcome by Washington Post. It is worth noting that countries that have long tried to avoid confrontation with Moscow are among those countries that declare Russian diplomats persona non grata.

Expulsions by the Czech Republic, for example, which in the past has taken a less hawkish policy toward Moscow, have left only six Russian diplomats in Prague, a point the government emphasized on Wednesday. “We have forced 100 Russian diplomats to leave,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Instagram. Mail Which means that the Russian officials were in fact intelligence officers.

High-ranking European officials involved in the expulsion said the effect would likely vary from place to place. Some countries, such as Austria, are full of international agencies which are prime targets. Other regions, such as the Baltic states, have large numbers of Russians who moved there during the Soviet occupation and could be targets for influence campaigns.

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A senior European diplomat described it as a “big disruption” to Russian intelligence’s work in Europe, and it likely will be permanent. The diplomat said the Kremlin would find it difficult to renew its intelligence rank.

“Reassignment and instructions will take time and may not be possible for some time, if any,” said the diplomat, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “Retraining, redeployment, it’s all broken.”

On Monday, prompted by scenes of atrocities in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, where civilians were found shot dead after Russian troops left, Germany declared 40 Russian diplomats “persona non grata,” calling them a threat to national security “who acted against our freedom.” On the same day, France also announced the expulsions.

In Lithuania and Latvia, Baltic states that routinely press a hard line against the Kremlin, 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 hurts,” said a senior diplomat from the Baltic states. “We’ve shut down their regional network.”

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

“Several 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 scholar in Europe at Johns Hopkins University and a former State Department official. “This helps outline a possible understanding among European countries that they will act to reduce Russia’s intelligence footprint now, in response to Moscow’s brutal and brutal war in Ukraine.”

Governments in Europe have been discussing a coordinated expulsion for more than a month, but some moved more quickly after the massacres in Bucha, according to officials familiar with the matter.

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The United States expelled 12 Russians it described as “intelligence agents” from the Russian permanent mission to the United Nations on February 28, days after the Russian invasion began. This move has been in the works for several months. It is not clear whether the Biden administration intends to expel more Russians.

Besides Russian officials launching espionage operations from embassies under the false cloak of diplomatic immunity, Moscow also has spies in Europe who have been declared to the host government. In some cases, Russia’s top spies in Europe were allowed to remain in their posts despite worsening relations.

“Not all the declared spies have been expelled,” said a European official familiar with the matter. “In some cases, we allow the station chief to have a smaller team around him. It can still be a valuable channel.”

The last coordinated expulsion Between the United States and its European allies following Russia’s poisoning of a former British spy and his daughter in the English town of Salisbury in 2018. More than twenty countries expelled more than 150 Russians.

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

“It shows the seriousness of the Allies’ reaction,” Polymeropoulos said. “There is always a consideration that if a country expels some Russians, it will reciprocate against your embassy in Moscow. The fact that many countries decided on mass expulsions shows how the cost-benefit calculation has changed.”

The effects may be long lasting. “One can assume that in most cases countries simply will not allow surrogates to replace those who have been expelled, which could mean a long period of Russian intelligence access to EU territory,” Rathke said.

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Besides the expulsion of spies, the absence of Russian political officials reporting to Moscow could reduce Russian-made disinformation targeting the host country’s citizens, US and European diplomats said.

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A diplomat familiar with the situation said that some Czech officials have already noticed fewer malicious media campaigns targeting their domestic policies since the ouster of some diplomats last year.

Analysts expect to see this development in other countries.

said Angela Stint, a Russian scholar at Georgetown University and a former senior intelligence official in the George W. Bush administration.

The expulsions are also likely to damage Russia’s economic relations with Europe, which is already struggling in the face of unprecedented sanctions. “Russian business is collapsing in Europe — adding another hurdle that makes it an absolute nightmare,” a European official said, noting that closing consulates would harm Russia’s ability to boost transnational business.

A European official said that expelling so many Russian officials, including some real diplomats, also carries risks. We target both spies and diplomats, which means we will have fewer channels of communication when we want to talk to each other. It’s a downside, but we think it’s appropriate given the circumstances.”

The expulsions are in line with broader efforts to cut off all channels with Russia except for some lines of communication in crises, said Sam Sharap, chief political analyst at the RAND Corporation.

“This is an understandable response to the horrors of war, but it may also make it difficult to practice diplomacy if the time for diplomacy finally comes,” he said.

And if Russia reciprocates, that could make it difficult for European officials to understand events in Moscow.

“We have much less information than Russia now overall,” Sharap said. Independent media was completely closed. It is even difficult to find Russian state TV on the Internet. So losing the eyes and ears of Western diplomacy is hurting more now than before.”

Sammy Westfall contributed to this report.