on security

The Covert Effects of Diplomatic Expulsions

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
6 MINS READApr 3, 2018 | 08:00 GMT
The U.S. Capitol and the Russian Kremlin, both photographed at night.

Russian and U.S. counterintelligence agencies now have 60 fewer human targets and one fewer facility to monitor, meaning they can devote assets such as agents, surveillance teams and technology to other priorities.

  • Tensions between Russia and the West had been increasing in recent years, but the Skripal attack has resulted in a rapid escalation. 
  • The reciprocal expulsion of intelligence officers will create challenges for intelligence agencies and opportunities for counterintelligence services. These factors will likely result in more activity by, and arrests of, intelligence officers who do not have diplomatic immunity. 
  • This environment will affect travelers and expatriates who are suspected of being intelligence officers.

The recent nerve agent attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom has only intensified tensions between Russia and the West. On March 26, the United States ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats and closed the Russian Consulate General in Seattle, while many other European nations and British allies also expelled Russian diplomats. Russia has responded in kind, expelling 60 U.S. diplomats (as well as several from other countries) and closing the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg. If Washington and London implement new sanctions or visa review requirements, Moscow will reciprocate on those as well.

In a previous column, I wrote about how the attack and various countries' responses would create challenges for companies, nongovernmental organizations and journalists operating in Russia. But the back-and-forth retaliation will also have major implications for intelligence and counterintelligence operations on both sides of the dispute, adding fuel to an already blazing fire.

The Big Picture

The increasing aggressiveness of Russian intelligence agencies since Vladimir Putin assumed office in 2000 has reignited the intelligence war that was briefly suspended with the fall of the Soviet Union. This hostility has significant implications for the intelligence agencies involved, and for civilians caught in the crossfire.

The Secret Side of Embassies

Though the average citizen may think of embassies as serving primarily diplomatic, commercial and consular functions, they are also critical resources for intelligence organizations. Essentially every country on Earth uses diplomatic facilities, such as embassies, to carry out intelligence missions. Offensively, governments use them to place intelligence officers under the protection of diplomatic immunity. Defensively, they focus their counterintelligence efforts on monitoring known and suspected intelligence officers assigned to foreign diplomatic posts.

In the wake of recent events, all of the involved parties, but particularly the United States and Russia due to the sheer number of officers involved, will see practical impacts on both their intelligence and counterintelligence operations. Indeed, most of the expelled diplomats were likely intelligence officers under official cover, and their loss will place a great deal of pressure on the officers that remain. Intelligence officers without official cover or diplomatic immunity — known as non-official cover (NOC) officers in the United States and as illegals in Russian espionage terminology — will be at a particular disadvantage, because they are generally more vulnerable.

We can expect these types of intelligence officers in Russia and the United States to increase their activity as they take up the slack, recruiting more new agents and taking care of existing ones. The spies who were handled by the expelled intelligence officers will rely more heavily on covert communication methods rather than face-to-face meetings with handlers. Meanwhile, NOC and illegal officers will handle anything that requires in-person contact. Washington and Moscow may well deploy additional NOCs and illegals to help bear the load.

Russian Diplomats Expelled, by Country

Throwing Gasoline on the Fire

From a counterintelligence perspective, the expulsions free up major resources. Russian and U.S. counterintelligence agencies now have 60 fewer human targets and one fewer facility to monitor, meaning they can devote assets such as agents, surveillance teams and technology to other priorities; they can more thoroughly monitor known targets and more vigorously hunt for officers who don't enjoy official cover or diplomatic immunity.

All of this increased intelligence and counterintelligence activity will feed into itself, amplifying the pressure on Russia and the West to figure out what the other is up to — especially when it comes to spy recruitment from within their own ranks. Indeed, I believe the Russians were driven to attack Sergei Skripal less for retaliation and more to send a message to current intelligence officers that if they betray Russia, nothing can save them.

Once NOC and illegal officers begin increasing their activity and counterintelligence agencies gain more assets to hunt for them, more and more of them are likely to be identified and arrested. As with the 2010 U.S. operation to shut down a Russian intelligence operation involving illegal officers, these arrests are likely to be highly publicized, and they will almost certainly result in Cold War-like spy swaps.

While many of the activities that occur in the intelligence battle between the West and Russia are reciprocal, such as expulsions, arrests and even the surveillance and harassment of diplomats, the playing field is not perfectly even. The West maintains the edge in technical spying (though Russia has made progress since President Vladimir Putin took office), while Russia, with its looser privacy rights and expanded access to data, enjoys a distinct home-field advantage when it comes to counterintelligence operations. Western intelligence offers must play by "Moscow rules" in the hostile environment of Russia, while Russians in the West experience relative freedom.

The Cost for Civilians

Civilians caught in the middle of this growing intelligence war can expect to be increasingly scrutinized, especially business travelers, tourists, nongovernmental organization workers and journalists. Security services in the West will place further emphasis on travelers from Russia, and those in Russia will do the same for Western travelers. But even those with other national identities will be targeted for security screenings, since intelligence officers often use third-country identities in an effort to throw counterintelligence agents off their trails. For example, of the 11 Russian illegal agents caught by the FBI in 2010, four claimed Canadian citizenship, four claimed to be U.S. citizens, two claimed to be Peruvian citizens and one was a British citizen.

Individuals suspected of being intelligence officers will be heavily surveilled and their electronic communications will be monitored. The local counterintelligence agency may also interview suspects directly, in an overt attempt to either rattle them or place them on notice that they are under the microscope. Suspected intelligence officers or anyone else of interest to Russian intelligence can expect to be approached by people attempting to honey-trap them, no matter their gender and orientation. And Western visitors to Russia will likely have their hotel rooms wired for video and audio.

These realities will provide an additional layer of difficulty for corporate security managers whose companies are sponsoring the World Cup or sending high-level executives to Russia for the games. And foreign travelers to the United States, United Kingdom and NATO countries will receive additional scrutiny if they have profiles that could make them appear to be Russian illegals. Western companies and organizations operating in Russia, as well as their Russian counterparts working in the West, will simply have to adapt to this new intelligence war, because its associated challenges are fast becoming the new normal.

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