April 11, 2022

IntelBrief: Spy Games: Russian Intelligence Personnel Expelled from Western Embassies

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Bottom Line Up Front

  • In the wake of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Western countries have expelled hundreds of Russian diplomats to hinder Russian intelligence efforts.
  • Most countries use some diplomatic postings for intelligence purposes, though the scale of Russia’s efforts is massive, and there will be significant consequences to having its personnel evicted from embassies worldwide.
  • The expulsion of diplomats and intelligence officers from Western embassies is in direct response to the war in Ukraine, but the expulsions themselves are unlikely to have an impact on that war or Russia’s military decision-making.
  • The effort by Western countries to “clean house” is a step toward permanently reducing Russia’s blatant and bloated intelligence stations located abroad.

As part of the multi-layered response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Western nations have expelled personnel from Russian embassies in their respective countries. Estimates of the number of Russian diplomatic personnel booted from EU and NATO member states range from 120 to nearly 400. Foreign Policy reports that at least 394 officials have been expelled since the February invasion began. Germany alone has expelled 40 members of the Russian delegation, a significant number and a substantial action by a country, like many others, that imports Russian natural gas. The stated reason for these expulsions is to protest Russia’s war in Ukraine, though the expulsions will do little to impact the war.

The Russian personnel being expelled from embassies are most likely intelligence officers with diplomatic cover and protection. Most, if not all, countries use diplomatic postings abroad as intelligence collection platforms. It is an open “secret”; the identities of many intelligence officers operating out of certain postings are usually known or suspected as such by host country security services. It is essentially tolerated as long as it remains within certain boundaries, sometimes referred to as “the rules of the game.” Russia has long exceeded those boundaries, and its intelligence platforms out of European capitals are both bloated and cavalier. Russia has conducted assassination attempts in the United Kingdom using toxins and radiation poisoning and has brazenly tried to influence foreign elections across the EU and U.S. Many of these campaigns and operations were likely either run or assisted by Russian intelligence officers operating out of embassies.

The expulsions will reduce the sheer size of Russia’s intelligence footprint in European countries, which will have some negative impacts on their collection efforts in the countries in which many of their officers find themselves persona non grata. Intelligence services are bureaucracies like all others, and disruptions in long-established systems and procedures create operational redundancies, inefficiencies, and decreased productivity. It will be disruptive, but it will be temporary, once the Russian intelligence services adjust. There could be some minor impact on Russian embassy support to the technically illegal intelligence officers of the Russian intelligence services abroad—those operating without diplomatic posting or protection, declared or undeclared, who do not work out of embassies. This would also be temporary.

What might not be temporary is the overall reduction of Russian access; the expulsions might and should lead to official permanent reductions in the overall numbers of Russians allowed to be posted at embassies in Western European nations. There is nothing close to parity when it comes to the numbers of Russians at their embassies in Europe and the numbers of Europeans in their embassies in Russia. Obviously, operating, in terms of intelligence collection, is far more difficult and covert in Russia than it would be in open societies, which naturally results in smaller diplomatic and intelligence footprints. However, the scale of Russian official intelligence footprints in European embassies is grossly out of balance and creates real threats and damage to their host nations. Getting back to some semblance of parity in terms of official intelligence footprints is both an important symbolic statement by the West and a practical step in curtailing the long-running over-the-top realities of Russian operations abroad. These punitive measures are a necessary response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, but the expulsions won’t be without their own negative consequences for Western countries, including reciprocal expulsions from the Russians, a smaller pool of potential recruits in embassies, and the need to identify replacements as they potentially backfill their counterparts.