The Covert Effects of Diplomatic Expulsions

Apr 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...

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