Spy Expulsions: What Has Broken and What Has Fixed
On March 5, 1946 Winston Churchill gave his famous Iron Curtain speech. Since 1946, as rival ideologies and political goals clashed against one another throughout Europe, tensions between Eastern and Western Europe have grown and declined. This conflict, known to most as the Cold War, involved the use of espionage by both NATO and the Soviet Republics in order to gain intelligence and disrupt the progress of the arms race. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the fall of Soviet Union in 1991, countries, borders, and the international world has changed. However, acts of espionage continue as countries use their vast intelligence apparatus to gain information and influence over opposing states. But what happens when once actions destroy the intelligence infrastructure of several countries?
Following the March 5, 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, United Kingdom (UK), more than 20 countries– including the United States , United Kingdom, Canada, and France– have come together to expel over 150 diplomats who are in some way involved with the Russian intelligence apparatus in Europe and North America (BBC 2018). Moscow’s response to the departure of its intelligence officers within North America and Europe was to expel an equal number of diplomats (alleged intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover) from the countries who have taken part in the spy expulsion. While the eye for an eye response may seem reasonable, the action has crippled the intelligence community throughout Europe and North America for years to come.
So why is this political response to an alleged immoral act so detrimental to the intelligence community? When spies who are working under diplomatic covers are expelled, it means that they must be replaced which may take a long time. “For the Central Intelligence Agency, being assigned to Moscow Station — either in declared status or “black” (i.e., undercover) — reserved for the best-of-the-best officers in the Operations Directorate. Several years of extensive training in “Moscow rules” — highly specialized tradecraft — is required” (Goulden 2018). Thus, because of recent spy expulsion, each intelligence agency involved will undoubtedly lose countless sources of intelligence in Russia, as well as the Russian intelligence service losing their own sources in foreign countries. The matter is further complicated when you realize that any intelligence asset in the Russian embassy will have to be expelled as well. An ex-Central Intelligence Agency officer told the Washington Times, “Speaking hypothetically: Suppose we have turned one of those ‘Russian diplomats’ into a valued source of intelligence. The expulsions mean that you kick out EVERYONE, including your man-in-place. Ivan might be your best recruitment in a lifetime. But leave him in Washington, you are pointing a deadly finger at him” (Goulden 2018). The expulsions, while they send a clear message of acceptable conduct in the intelligence community, have arguably caused one of the worst disasters to worldwide intelligence community in a time when tensions require every asset available. The closing of the Seattle Consulate has also left Russia in a difficult position, as it has most likely lost its intelligence assets in Boeing and the Naval base in Seattle. The consulate closing sent a message following accusations of cyber-attacks and spying on US infrastructure; however, the ability of over 20 countries amid high political tension coming together sends an even stronger message to the Russian Federation.
The EU-UK tension during Brexit negotiations potentially allowed the Russian intelligence service to take advantage of the deteriorating relations. What was probably not predicted was the “remarkable show of solidarity with Britain” (Marcus 2018) that has resulted in over 150 diplomats (spies and personal involved in the intelligence service) being expelled from more than 20 countries and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle. Furthermore, British response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal has been a move towards patient diplomacy. While the blame was quickly pointed towards the Russian Federation, Britain sought “out every available international forum, from the EU, to NATO, the UN, and the highly relevant OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons) to set out its evidence and justify its conclusions” (Marcus 2018). When the results came in that the poison used was Novichok, a nerve agent designed by the Soviet Union, countries within and outside the EU banded together in a show of retaliation against the use of chemical weapons and assassinations on foreign soil. While this show of force obviously presents an issue for Russian-European diplomacy, it has seemed to benefit the EU. With tensions arising from the coming departure of the United Kingdom from the EU, this alliance against immoral use of chemical agents has brought Europe closer over the recent months.
Overall, the eye for an eye spy expulsion across the EU and North American may have presented a double edge sword. On one end, the intelligence services have suffered one of the greatest losses since the cold war; on the other hand, UK-EU relations have grown stronger following the spy expulsions.
BBC. 2018. Spy poisoning: Russia escalates spy row with new expulsions. March 31. Accessed May 13, 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-43596812.
—. 2018. Spy poisoning: Russian diplomats expelled across US and Europe. March 26. Accessed May 3, 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43545565.
Goulden, Joseph C. 2018. https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/may/2/its-not-clear-that-mass-expulsions-of-russians-are/. May 2. Accessed May 10, 2018. https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/may/2/its-not-clear-that-mass-expulsions-of-russians-are/.
Marcus, Johnathan. 2018. Spy poisoning: What the diplomat expulsions mean for Russia. March 26. Accessed May 12, 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-43547038.