Apr 6, 2022 - World

U.S. and Europe crack down on Russian spies

Total Russian diplomats or embassy staff expelled since Ukraine invasion
Note: The U.S. has also expelled 12 Russian diplomats. Data: Axios research; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The U.S. and Europe have together ordered the expulsion of more than 400 Russian diplomats and embassy staff since the invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, according to an Axios tally.

Why it matters: Many of the Russians declared "persona non grata" are alleged intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover. Their removal should degrade Russia's ability to spy and carry out subversive activities on Western soil, but may also cause collateral damage if Moscow responds with tit-for-tat expulsions.

By the numbers: The U.S. became the first country to kick out alleged Russian spies post-invasion on Feb. 28, when it expelled 12 "intelligence operatives" from Russia's mission to the UN for "engaging in espionage activities" considered "adverse" to U.S. national security.

  • NATO's Eastern-flank countries initiated the next major wave in late March, with Poland setting a record (45) following expulsions by Bulgaria (10), Estonia (3), Latvia (3) and Lithuania (4).
  • Images of the atrocities in Bucha last weekend spurred other countries in Western Europe to take unprecedented action against Russian diplomatic staff this week, including Germany (40), France (30) and Italy (30).

The big picture: Virtually every country embeds intelligence officers in overseas embassies to collect information for policymakers back home.

  • This sometimes occurs with the wink-wink knowledge of partner governments, and sometimes undercover.

Between the lines: Russian spies engage in the same conventional behavior, but are unique in that "70% or 80% of what they do includes 'active measures' like subversion and assassination and funding radical groups," says John Sipher, a former CIA officer who ran the agency's Russia operations.

  • For example, the Czech Republic has only expelled one Russian diplomat since the Ukraine invasion began — but kicked out 60 last year after uncovering evidence Russian operatives blew up a Czech ammunition depot in 2014.
  • The same goes for the U.K., which expelled a post-Cold War record 23 Russian diplomats in 2018 after former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal was poisoned with a nerve agent on British soil.

The other side: Expelling known intelligence officers can be a double-edged sword, since it removes the ability of the U.S. and other host countries to keep tabs on their activities, Sipher tells Axios.

  • The Russians working at foreign embassies are often more susceptible to recruitment, which is "almost impossible" to do inside Russia given the resources the Russian government pours into counterintelligence, Sipher says.
  • Tit-for-tat retaliation will also dramatically reduce the diplomatic and intelligence presence Western countries have inside Russia, further shrinking an already-narrow window into the Kremlin.
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