Russia depends on these operatives to gather intelligence inside the countries where they serve, so the deportation could eliminate most of Moscow’s spy networks and lead to a sharp reduction in espionage and disinformation operations against the West, current and former officials said.
“The intelligence war with Russia is in full swing,” said Mark Polymerapoulos, a retired CIA officer who led the agency’s covert operations in Europe and Russia. “This will be significant damage to Russian intelligence operations in Europe.” Officials said it appears to be the largest-ever coordinated expulsion of diplomats from Europe.
“Europe has always been a platform for Russians. They wreaked havoc with election interference and assassinations. This is a long overdue step, ”Polymerapoulos said.
Over the past six weeks, European officials have asked nearly 400 Russian diplomats to resign, according to The Washington Post. It is noteworthy that among those who declare Russian diplomats persona non grata, countries that have long tried to avoid confrontation with Moscow.
For example, as a result of the expulsion of the Czech Republic, which in the past pursued a less hawk policy towards Moscow, only six Russian diplomats remained in Prague, the government stressed on Wednesday. “We have forced the departure of 100 RUSSIAN” DIPLOMATS “,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Instagram, which shows that Russian officials are in fact intelligence officers.
Senior European officials involved in the deportation process said the consequences are likely to vary from place to place. Some countries, like Austria, are overcrowded with international agencies that are the main targets. In other regions, such as the Baltics, there are large numbers of ethnic Russians who moved there during the Soviet occupation and may become targets for companies of influence.
A high-ranking European diplomat called it a “serious failure” of Russian intelligence in Europe, potentially permanent. It will be difficult for the Kremlin to join the intelligence service, the diplomat said.
“Reassignment and training will take time and may be impossible for some time, if ever,” said the diplomat, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues. “Retraining, redeployment, it’s all broken.”
On Monday, sparked by atrocities in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, where civilians were found dead after the withdrawal of Russian troops, Germany declared 40 Russian diplomats “undesirable”, calling them threats to national security who “worked against our freedom.” ”On the same day, France also announced the expulsion.
In Lithuania and Latvia, the Baltic states that regularly pursue a tough line against the Kremlin, governments this week ordered the closure of Russian consulates and sent a new wave of Russian officials, including Russia’s ambassador to Lithuania.
“It hurts for the Russians,” said a senior Baltic diplomat. “We have closed their regional network.”
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Other countries have followed suit, sending dozens of Russian staff from Denmark, Italy, Slovenia, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.
“A number of countries, such as Belgium and the Czech Republic, have shown that these steps are coordinated with their close neighbors and / or their allies,” said Jeff Ratke, a European scholar at Johns Hopkins University and a former State Department official. “It helps to outline the likely understanding between European countries that they will move to reduce the trail of Russian intelligence now, in response to Moscow’s ruthless and brutal war in Ukraine.”
European governments have been discussing coordinated expulsions for more than a month, but some have left sooner after the massacres in Bucha, officials familiar with the case say.
The United States expelled 12 Russians, dubbed “intelligence operatives,” from Russia’s permanent mission to the United Nations on February 28, days after the Russian invasion began. We worked on this step for several months. It is unclear whether the Biden administration intends to expel more Russians.
In addition to Russian officials, who under the guise of diplomatic immunity start espionage operations from embassies, Moscow also has spies in Europe who are declared such by the host government. In some cases, Russia’s top spies in Europe were allowed to remain in office despite deteriorating ties.
“Not all the declared spies have been expelled,” said a European official familiar with the case. “In some cases, we allow the stationmaster to deal with the smaller team around him. It can remain a valuable channel. “
The last coordinated deportation of the United States and its European allies took place after Russia poisoned a former British spy and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury in 2018. Two dozen countries expelled more than 150 Russians.
The current campaign overshadows these efforts, which have been the largest since the Cold War.
“This shows the seriousness of the Allies’ response,” Polymerapoulos said. “It is always believed that if one country expels some Russians, they will reciprocate your embassy in Moscow. The fact that so many countries have decided on mass deportations shows how the calculation of costs and benefits has changed. “
And the effect can be long lasting. “It can be assumed that in most cases the countries will not simply allow the replacement of those who have been deported, which could mean a long period of limited access for Russian intelligence to the EU,” Ratke said.
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In addition to ousting spies, the lack of Russian political officers reporting to Moscow could lead to less misinformation of Russian production aimed at the citizens of the host country, US and European diplomats say.
Some Czech officials have already noticed less vicious information campaigns aimed at their domestic policies, following the dismissal of some diplomats last year, said a diplomat familiar with the situation.
Analysts expect to see such developments in other countries.
“Their expulsion will reduce Russia’s ability to spread misinformation in Europe and the United States about what is really happening in Ukraine, and its ability to undermine the West’s attempts to maintain a united front in response to the war,” said Angela Stent, a Russian scientist. Georgetown University and a former senior intelligence officer in the George W. Bush administration.
The expulsions are also likely to damage Russia’s economic ties with Europe, which are already suffering from unprecedented sanctions. “Russian business is collapsing in Europe, which adds another hurdle that makes it an absolute nightmare,” said a European official, who said the closure of consulates would damage Russia’s ability to promote multinational business.
But expelling such a large number of Russian officials, including some who are genuine diplomats, also carries risks, said one European official. “We are targeting both spies and diplomats, which means we will have fewer channels of communication if we want to talk to each other. This is a minus, but we think it is appropriate given the circumstances. “
Sam Skull, a senior political scientist at Rand Corporation, said the deportation was in line with broader efforts to sever all channels with Russia except some crisis communications.
“This is a clear response to the horrors of war, but it can also make it harder to hold diplomacy when the time for diplomacy finally comes,” he said.
And if Russia reciprocates, it will be harder for European officials to understand events in Moscow.
“We now have, in general, much less information coming from Russia,” said Skull. “Independent media have been completely stopped. It is even difficult to find Russian state television on the Internet. So the loss of Western diplomatic eyes and ears hurts even more now than before. ”
Sammy Westfall contributed to this report.