March 27, 2018

IntelBrief: Serious Spy Games 

The U.S. State Department in Washington (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais).
  • On March 26, the Trump Administration announced the expulsion of 60 Russian intelligence and diplomatic officers.
  • Moscow has been open about its goal of encouraging the disunion and dissolution of the EU and of NATO, its main geopolitical and military adversaries.
  • More than 20 countries are taking action against Russia, including Poland, which expelled the Russian ambassador, a significant step for that country.
  • Russia will certainly retaliate in a ‘tit for tat’ spy game escalation but the breadth of this move is far more than symbolic.


On March 26, the United States announced it was expelling 60 Russian diplomats, assessing most as intelligence officers—48 are from the Russian embassy in Washington D.C. and 12 are from the United Nations delegation in New York. Significantly, the U.S. also announced the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle, Washington, believed to be a hub for Russian espionage activities against nearby Naval Base Kitsap, a home port for nuclear-powered Trident submarines, and Boeing. The 60 Russians have seven days to leave the country.

The U.S. announcement was made in conjunction with a statement by European Council President Donald Tusk that 14 countries—only some of which were identified—are taking or will take action against Russia for its involvement in the March 4 assassination attempt using a nerve agent in Salisbury, England. Britain had already expelled 23 Russian officials. The Russian Embassy in London—an infamous Twitter troll over the last several years—urged the U.S. not to stand with the United Kingdom, saying London wanted to divide the U.S. and Russia. The March 25 expulsions show that messaging failed, with the U.S. making a point of saying “The United States takes this action in conjunction with our NATO allies and partners around the world in response to Russia's use of a military-grade chemical weapon on the soil of the United Kingdom, the latest in its ongoing pattern of destabilizing activities around the world.’

It appears Moscow misjudged the strong international condemnation to its attempt to murder a former Russian intelligence officer and his daughter. In fact, NATO and the EU publicly moved closer on this issue than on any other in recent years. Moscow has been open about its goal of encouraging the disunion and dissolution of the EU and of NATO, its main geopolitical and military adversaries. In and of themselves, the expulsions will not change the worsening and openly hostile behavior of the Kremlin. The expulsions are, however, significant for two reasons.

The first is that the expulsions make a meaningful dent in Russian intelligence operations inside the U.S. That the U.S. expelled 60 officials is a sign of just how large the Russian espionage effort is–well known in the intelligence and law enforcement communities for years. In 2016, the Obama Administration expelled 35 Russian ‘diplomats’ from the Washington embassy and the consulate in San Fransisco, where Russian intelligence officers worked against Silicon Valley targets and closed the Russian intelligence compound in Maryland. Those actions make it harder for the remaining Russian officers to work and easier for the FBI to track them as they do so. In every country expelling intelligence officers, Russian espionage against those targets becomes more difficult.

The second reason for the significance of the March 25 expulsions is that there is solidarity among long-standing allies that nonetheless have experienced strained relations in the last year. While standing with the United Kingdom in the nerve agent scandal will not reverse Brexit, it is a powerful reminder that the ties that bind the U.K and the E.U, as well as those that bind the U.K. and the U.S., are deep. No one action or response will effectively counter Russia’s aggression, but that does not diminish the importance of steps that work toward that goal.


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