The Kremlin’s intelligence services have been set back by years
RUSSIA’S INVASION of Ukraine has bruised its army and battered its economy. Now Russia’s spies are being hammered, too. On April 7th Austria, for many years a hub for Russian espionage, became the latest country to expel suspected Russian intelligence officers, bringing the total number of Russian officials expelled from America and Europe since the war began to more than 400. The mass expulsions, the largest in history, are likely to have lasting effects on Vladimir Putin’s intelligence services and their ability to spy—and to subvert—in Europe.
Though America and Bulgaria each kicked out a dozen Russians in the first week of the war, the most recent round of expulsions began with Slovakia and Bulgaria in mid-March, followed by Poland and the Baltic states on March 23rd, and then a cavalcade of others, including 75 from France and Germany on April 4th. On April 5th nine countries, and the European Union itself, sent home more than 150. Most are alleged spies, though not all—Lithuania is casting out Russia’s ambassador. Other countries are preparing further expulsions.
The ejection of spooks on this scale is unprecedented. It is more than double the number booted out in 2018, when 28 Western countries expelled 153 suspected spies in response to Russia’s attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who had spied for Britain, in Salisbury, England. The latest expulsions are “outstanding” and “long overdue”, says Marc Polymeropoulos, who led the CIA’s operations in Europe and Eurasia until 2019. “Europe was their historic playground and their diplomatic staff is always pretty damn large in a lot of these places.” In his last job, says Mr Polymeropoulos, “we really considered Europe to be a key battleground with the Russians.”
The immediate aim of the expulsions is to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Officials from the FSB, Russia’s security service, and GRU, the military intelligence outfit that targeted Mr Skripal, both played a key role in planning and waging the war. It is also intended to make it harder for Russia to go about the core business of intelligence: stealing secrets.
The Russian intelligence presence in some European countries had grown so large that it was becoming hard for local security services to keep tabs on suspected and proven spies. Last year a German spy chief said that Russian spying stood at the same levels as during the cold war. Before the most recent expulsions, there were estimated to be almost 1,000 undeclared Russian intelligence officers in embassies and consulates in Europe.
But espionage is not the only concern. Rooting out intelligence officers also helps insulate Europe from Russian sabotage and subversion. In one way, the roots of the latest expulsions stretch back to last year. In April 2021 the Czech Republic accused the GRU of bombing an arms depot in the country. It expelled 81 Russian diplomats (one reason why it has kicked out fewer this time round), America another ten and other European countries 14.
That episode, and others like it, prompted a sweeping NATO audit of Russia’s rezidenturas (stations, as Britain or America would call them) in Western embassies and their activities. The audit found that the country’s embassies were packed with huge numbers of undeclared intelligence officers from across its three services: the GRU, FSB and SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, which makes up the bulk of spies in diplomatic missions abroad. In October last year NATO expelled eight alleged spies from its mission in Brussels, prompting Russia to shut down the office and to kick NATO out of Moscow in return.
The purpose of removing Russian officials from Europe is not just to stop them doing undesirable things. It is also to stop them aiding and abetting others. The GRU officers who poisoned Mr Skripal and bombed Bulgaria were not pretending to be diplomats in London or Sofia; they were sent from Moscow under what is known as non-official cover. Mr Skripal’s would-be assassins famously pretended to be tourists visiting Salisbury cathedral. Such covert action often relies on support from local embassies, though, such as the use of diplomatic pouches to move illicit material across borders.
Making this sort of thing harder is sensible, but it comes at a cost because Russia responds in kind. After the Skripal expulsions, Russia kicked out 189 Western officials. One result is that bona fide diplomats—who are invariably part of the exodus—have less opportunity to engage ordinary Russians, at a time when state propaganda is growing more unhinged. This is why foreign ministries are often less keen on expulsions than security officials.
The number of Western spies in Moscow also takes a hit. In practice, this may be less of a problem than it seems. On their home turf, Russian security services have more resources and powers at their disposal to track Western intelligence officers based in embassies in Moscow than vice versa—a GRU officer can move around and meet people more easily in Berlin than a CIA officer in Russia’s capital.
Nor is expulsion a permanent solution. Russia tends to send back new spies to replace the ones who have left, requiring Western counterintelligence agencies to work out, from scratch, which lowly first secretary is the new spook. Some Western officials say their aim is to ensure that bloated Russian embassies in Europe are no larger than their Western equivalents in Moscow—a principle that the Czech Republic insisted on last year. That requires constantly refusing visas for new arrivals, and diligent information sharing among allies so that an officer kicked out from one country cannot be sent to another.
Fewer Russian spies in New York, London or Paris means fewer potential double agents. Nonetheless, there are still plenty left. And Western spies may find good hunting among them in the current circumstances. It was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 which disillusioned Oleg Kalugin, a KGB general, Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB’s rezident in London and Vasili Mitrokhin, a KGB archivist; the latter two became spectacularly successful agents for MI6, while Mr Kalugin became a dissident and moved to America. The war in Ukraine, far bloodier than the crushing of the Prague Spring, may have a similar effect on some of their successors in the GRU, SVR and FSB.
“Many of those serving here fully realise that Russia has been humiliated by this disastrous war because of their total access to information,” says Jonathan Haslam, a historian of Russia’s intelligence services, “and you can conclude that on their return to the Motherland they cannot be relied upon by the regime.” In Moscow, the upper echelons of the FSB seem to be in turmoil, blamed by Mr Putin for botching the war and providing unreliable information. Russian spies posted abroad, and their families, will also have become accustomed to life in Western capitals. A return to increasingly totalitarian Moscow may not appeal. “I would hope that all of them are getting a phone call or a bump on the street or a visit from the local security services for a chat,” says Mr Polymeropoulos. “The allies should hit them up before they leave.”
Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis