The West's expelling of Russian diplomats is a bold move with bite — here's why

Not only are this week’s expulsions a sign of extraordinary solidarity against Russia, but such coordination significantly weakens the Kremlin’s intelligence capabilities, as Stephanie Carvin explains. 

By: /
March 27, 2018
A flag is pictured outside the Russian embassy in Ottawa, Canada, on March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

The coordinated international effort by Western countries this week to expel Russian intelligence officers, most posing as diplomats, is a bold move, and should be seen as more than just international politics as usual.

By Wednesday morning 25 countries, including Canada and the United States, had announced that they were declaring 100 Russian diplomats “persona non grata” (or PNG) in response to the indiscriminate chemical weapon attack in early March against a former spy living in the UK.

While some may grumble that the move is little more than a symbolic gesture far short of true retaliation, there are two reasons why these actions are significant and will have an impact.

First, the move is an important show of solidarity among Western countries. Nearly all European countries have tangled relations with Russia. While NATO countries have taken a harder line since the invasion of Crimea, economics and energy links remain. These interests have sometimes made coordinated action in response to aggressive Russian activities difficult. Further, the move is a clear indication that Western countries do not believe the denials and conspiracy theories offered by Moscow and its propaganda outfits as explanations for the attack on March 4.

Second, there are practical implications for Russia in terms of its intelligence operations as a result of these expulsions.

Typically, hostile foreign intelligence services use “illegals” and “legals” to obtain human intelligence abroad. Illegals are intelligence officers under deep cover who use fake identities to maintain their status and engage in clandestine activities. (The TV show The Americans is in fact based on a network of Soviet illegals operating in the United States.) 

In this case, however, it is “legals” that are being targeted. These are intelligence officers posing as diplomatic staff in order to be posted in embassies and consulates abroad. Although their real purpose is to run espionage networks (sometimes with the help of the illegals), they can hide behind their legal status tied to a diplomatic position. It has been estimated that during the Cold War somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of diplomatic personnel in the Soviet embassy in Ottawa were part of the intelligence apparatus. (However, some of these staff may very well have been there for the purpose of ensuring that others did not defect.)

"Although the Cold War has been over for decades, many of the same activities that took place during those years continue."

Today it is hard to know exactly how many spies are present in the Russian embassy and consulates in Canada. As such, it’s hard to assess just how much of an impact one particular country expelling Russian diplomats — Canada has ordered the removal of four individuals and denied the application of three others — will have. But having to replace over 100 officers across the West at the same time will be a challenge for even a very good intelligence service such as Russia’s. Therefore, while Russian intelligence operations will not cease, they have been disrupted — and this will be a significant problem for Moscow.

All of this begs the question: If we knew that these individuals were engaging in hostile activities, why did Canada not expel these diplomats earlier? Usually, when intelligence officers are expelled, they are typically replaced within a few months and espionage activities begin anew. For our security services tasked with monitoring these activities, especially the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), it is sometimes easier to follow the individuals they have already identified rather than having to discover new ones. Still, as noted above, this coordinated action of Western countries will mean that replacing the individuals expediently will be difficult for Russia.

Although the Cold War has been over for decades, many of the same activities that took place during those years continue. Indeed, states still seek the same information: government and military secrets, research, intelligence and information on their nationals. Yet, it is extremely rare for Canadian officials to publicly identify espionage threats.

Nevertheless, in recent years Canadians have received several reminders that they are the target of foreign intelligence services. From the 2010 and 2014 cases of cyber-espionage conducted against the Canadian government attributed to China to the 2012 case of Navy Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Paul Delisle who provided intelligence to Russia, espionage is a real and present threat to the security of Canada.

In this sense, the steps taken this week against Russia are both symbolic and significant. Hopefully, this is the start rather than the end point of coordinated action to contain Moscow. While President Vladimir Putin may be surprised at the scale of the diplomatic expulsions, he, and those in the circle around him, will be more distressed to learn that they could be facing ramped up financial pressure if the UK decides to proceed with further actions (including passing a Magnitsky law that would target anyone involved in human rights violations), and can convince its allies to do likewise.

Actions that continue to target the Kremlin, and those around Putin, are likely to bring real pressure on Russia. And the closer the West can stand together in these initiatives, the greater the pressure and the louder the message will be that Russia’s aggressive actions must stop.