Spy games: expulsion of diplomats -probably the largest in history - shines light on Russian espionage
The war in Ukraine has prompted an exodus of Russian ‘diplomats’. Does it mark the end of an era?
The unprecedented wave of expulsions of Russian diplomats from European capitals – now close to 400 – is not just a symbolic, if reversible, act of revulsion at the war crimes for which Russia stands accused. It is part of a decades long battle to police the dividing line between espionage and diplomacy, one in which the west of late has been accused of too often ignoring a resurgence in Russia’s clandestine activities, either because of an excessive focus on domestic terrorism, or excessive reliance on intercepts.
Sir John Sawers, the former head of M16, last year said he suspected the west was picking up only 10% of Russia’s espionage.
The current scale of the exodus of alleged Russian spies – probably the largest single set of such expulsions in history according to the distinguished former French diplomat François Heisbourg – may also raise questions about why the west came to indulge so many Russian “diplomats” working on European soil.
By Friday, among the EU member states, only Malta, Cyprus and Hungary had so far declined to send any Russian “diplomats” packing.
Heisbourg insisted there was a clear and valid distinction between a diplomat and a spy, and those being expelled from Europe will not be chosen at random but because there is evidence they are in breach of the Vienna convention, the code that governs legitimate diplomacy. As well as spying this could also involve spreading disinformation on social media.
“If you spend your time sending Twitter messages insulting the government of the host nation, if you follow the ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy undertaken by Chinese diplomats, that can fall under that definition of making you persona non grata,” said Heisbourg.
Heisbourg said there was an art to expulsions. “Self-evidently, it is easier to keep track of the spy that you do know rather than the spy you don’t know. Once you know of their existence, they become useful counter-intelligence. If you don’t know who they are you have a problem.”
He recalled that during the so-called Farewell affair in the 1980s a KGB defector, Vladimir Vetrov, gave almost 4,000 secret documents to the DST, the French internal secret service, showing how Russia had penetrated the west to steal its technology. Vetrov also provided a list of 250 intelligence officers stationed under legal cover in embassies around the world.
It was only following Vetrov’s arrest in Moscow that France, acting on the dossiers Vetrov provided, acted to expel 40 diplomats, two journalists and five commercial officials. Heisbourg had a role in handling the case and recalled: “Even then, it was useful to keep some names back so we had an A list and a B list that we kept in reserve in case the Russians should take countervailing action. We made it known to the Russians that if they did a tit for tat, they would get hit again many times bigger.”
Since the 1980s Heisbourg said he had little doubt that the proportion of spies operating inside the Russian diplomatic service was higher than for most countries.
It raises questions, for instance, why 290 Russian diplomats will still be operating in neutral Austria even after the foreign ministry, following days of hesitation, expelled four diplomats. By way of comparison, Austria has about 30 diplomats operating in Moscow. It is true large countries have larger embassies – a prime example is the US embassy in Baghdad – and some of the Russian diplomats in Vienna – possibly 100 – are attached to the many UN institutions in Austria, such as the UN nuclear watchdog the IAEA. But the imbalance of Russian and Austrian interest in one another’s countries is, at best, striking.
Poland too may, in retrospect, be wondering why after expelling 45 diplomats on 23 March, it had ever granted diplomatic status to so many Russians in the first place. Stanisław Żaryn, spokesperson for the minister for the special services coordinator, has justified the expulsions by saying “we are neutralising the Russian special services network in our country”, adding that half the expelled diplomats were direct employees of the Russian secret service and half were involved in hostile influence operations.
“Russia uses diplomacy not to remain in contact with partners, but to push false claims and false propaganda statements against the west,” Żaryn said. In total, the 45 Russians being thrown out represent about half the Russian diplomatic staff in Warsaw.
Poland also saw the expulsions as a preventive measure. The risk of espionage had risen with the sudden influx of Ukrainians into Poland, potential fertile ground for Russia to stir dissent, recruit agents or pick up information from refugees about military movements. Russia, Żaryn claimed, was intent on “creating hostility within Poland towards Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia”. Poland is now seizing disused old Russian embassy buildings in Warsaw.
Two other countries at the forefront of providing heavy arms to Ukraine – Slovakia and the Czech Republic – have also recently been on the espionage front line with Moscow.
On 30 March, Bratislava expelled 35 diplomats, one of the largest single expulsions in the current wave.
Only a fortnight before on 14 March Slovakia detained four people suspected of spying for Moscow, and expelled three Russian diplomats in response. Russia had paid the suspects “tens of thousands of euros” for sensitive or classified information. The quality of that information is disputed, but one of the two men charged was pro-rector and the head of the security and defence department at the Armed Forces Academy in the northern town of Liptovsky Mikulas.
It has been reported there was evidence of contacts with four officers working for Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency dating to 2013.
One of them was Lt Col Sergey Solomasov, a GRU spy. Slovak intelligence filmed Solomasov smoking and talking in a park with Bohuš Garbár, a contributor to a now closed conspiracy website Hlavné Správy. On the video he tells Garbár: “Moscow has decided that you will be a ‘hunter’ for two types of people: those who love Russia and would like to cooperate, who want money, and have confidential information. The second group are your acquaintances who may or may not be thinking about working for Russia. I need political information and communication between countries, within Nato and the EU.”
The lines may not be purist Ian Fleming prose, but in an era of technology based espionage, they show spies still depend on a mundane individual’s avarice and mendacity.
The Czechs also have reason to doubt the bona fides of Russian diplomat. In 2014 a mysterious but massive explosion occurred at a couple of remote Czech weapons warehouses, including one in Vrbětice close to the border with Slovakia that led to two deaths. At the time Ukraine had been in the market for weapons to fight Russia in Donbas. It was not clear if the cause of the explosions was sabotage or incompetence, and the case went cold. But then investigations by the British police, as well as the open-source investigative news outlet Bellingcat, revealed the identity of two suspected GRU agents. The two were Ruslan Boshirov (real name Anatoliy Chepiga) and Alexander Petrov (Alexander Mishkin).
These exact same aliases had been allegedly given by two Russians who had visited a hotel near Vrbětice just before the 2014 explosion. Intelligence sources suggested that the planned arms shipments belonged to EMCO, a firm owned by the Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, who was poisoned in an upscale Sofia restaurant in April 2015, just months after the explosion in the Czech Republic.
An investigation in 2019 by Bellingcat asserted that another senior GRU officer, Denis Sergeev (aka “Sergey Fedotov”), was in Bulgaria at the time of Gebrev’s poisoning, which he survived.
Sergeev is also alleged to have been in the UK around the time of the the novichok poisoning attacks on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.
None of this activity, the Czechs concluded, would have occurred without the knowledge of the Russian state.
In April last year the then Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš ordered the expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats, asserting GRU Unit 29155 had been behind the destruction of the weapons.
Russia retaliated by expelling 20 Czechs, only for the Czechs to increase the expulsions to 60 so equalising the size of the two countries’ diplomatic missions. It was one of the largest single expulsions of Russian diplomats since Ronald Reagan threw out 80 diplomats in 1986 at the height of the cold war. Prague has often been described as a hub for Russian espionage activity across Europe, but no longer.
Not surprisingly after the diplomatic carnage of 2021, the Czechs have this spring only expelled one Russian diplomat.
In the same vein, Heisbourg said, most European countries are not critical of the British failure to expel diplomats in the wake of “the Bucha massacre”. After throwing out 29 Russian diplomats in the wake of the Skripal poisoning in 2019, Russia’s London embassy is relatively clean, and the UK is anyway reluctant to take a step that would see yet more of its Russian-speaking envoys – a precious resource – sent home from Moscow.
But the contrast between the UK and European response has been striking. After the war crimes in Bucha were revealed Germany expelled 40 Russian diplomats, France 35, Spain 25, Slovenia 33, Italy – which had thrown out two Russian spies in 2021 – selected a further 30. France for mysterious reasons then threw out a further six diplomats. Lithuania decided to expel Alexey Isakov, the Russian ambassador himself. As a farewell present someone dyed the lake in front of the embassy blood red.
Some, such as Belgium (expelled 21) and the Netherlands (17) took action before news of the Bucha massacre started to circulate. Others agonised. Luxembourg expelled only one Russian, but since there were only three Russian diplomats, it was more than symbolic.
A strong theme has been less that the diplomats were spies, but that they were agents of division and disinformation. The German foreign ministry for instance declared 40 persona non grata in the Russian embassy because “they have worked against our freedom, against the cohesion of our society, day after day here in Germany”. Spain simply said the 25 represented a threat to the interests and security of their country.
Other European countries have justified the expulsions on grounds of parity. The Slovenian foreign ministry for instance cited article 11 of the Vienna convention. That article confers the receiving state the right to require the foreign diplomatic mission or consular post to keep the size of its mission within reasonable and normal limits.
So Slovenia aligned the size of Russia diplomatic mission with its own in Moscow. Since Slovenia has only eight diplomats in Moscow, 33 of the 41 Russian embassy staff in Slovenia have been asked to leave the country. For good measure it has demanded Moscow pay compensation for a Russia missile damaging its mission in Kharkiv.
There have also been some curiosities. Austria’s foreign minister, Alexander Schallenberg, said at the beginning of last week he opposed expulsions and insisted Austria needed its eyes and ears. “We do not expel in bulk,” he said grandly, adding the lack of coordination across Europe was regrettable. But by Thursday he executed an inelegant U-turn. One possible reason for the volte face was the re-emergence of stories recalling how Austria’s scandal ridden Federal Agency for State Protection and Counterterrorism (BVT) had been excluded from European intelligence sharing for a while because it was considered deeply compromised.
Another curio has been Sweden. Neighbouring Denmark identified 15 Russian intelligence officers to throw out. The Swedish Security Service (Säpo) last year informed its foreign ministry that one in three Russian representatives in Sweden was in reality a spy, meaning 11 or 12 Russians working in the 35-strong embassy were spies, yet only three were expelled. Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, has been one of many to ask what was holding Sweden back.
Foreign ministries are reluctant to expel, unless the evidence is overwhelming. Diplomats naturally believe in their profession and so regard experts in situ with first hand contacts as vital to conveying accurate information about their host country back to their capital. They also reduce the risks of misunderstandings.
This benign take on the value of diplomacy with Russian is becoming a minority view. Even in neutral Ireland, there has been a change in perspective about the 31 Russian diplomats operating in the country. Some of it goes back to 2015 when the Russian embassy in Dublin received planning permission to put new buildings on its 2 hectare (5 acre) site including a large underground building, labelled on the planning application as for storage and plant use. It took a special meeting of the Irish government in March 2020 to reinterpret what was about to be constructed, and to revoke planning permission.
Keir Giles, senior consultant to the Chatham House Russia programme, explained: “Spies do not always operate in the country in which they are based. They once operated from a base in Chamonix, for instance, and there was clear risk Ireland was to be their spying headquarters for its European operations. They may have needed somewhere after so many had been thrown out [of the UK] following Skripal. The problem is Russia deters by operating in an asymmetrical way. You either respond in kind or you back down. We throw out spies and they throw out diplomats.”
For instance when eight Russian diplomats attached to Nato headquarters in Brussels were thrown out in October 2021, Russia did not just reciprocate, it shut down its whole Nato mission and shut down the Nato information office in Moscow. Meetings of the Nato-Russia Council, the main consultation body between Moscow and the west, were postponed.
Now with every day the estrangement seems to grow more profound. Visa requirements become tougher. More than 600 of 800 surveyed western companies have announced they are curtailing activities in Russia beyond what is required by international sanctions, according to a survey by Yale Management. Free media is disappearing, and VPN sites blocked, forcing the west and Russia deeper into their separate information bubbles. Germany will eventually wean itself off Russian energy permanently, curtailing a whole network of business, institutional and cultural links that have developed since the 1970s.
Few think that it is a decoupling that can be reversed for decades to come.