Many European countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Slovenia, Austria, Poland or Greece, have massively expelled Russian diplomats since the start of the invasion of Ukraine .
The United States, for its part, sent home 12 members of the Russian diplomatic mission to the UN in early March. In some cases, these expulsions are officially supposed to respond to the invasion of Ukraine and the abuses blamed by Westerners on the Russian army.
In several other cases, they are accompanied by accusations of espionage. Washington had thus indicated that it wanted to sanction agents “of the Russian mission who abused” of their diplomatic status “by engaging in espionage activities contrary to our national security”.
Moscow responded with parallel measures
“The reduction of the possibilities of communicating at the diplomatic level in these difficult conditions” denotes a “lack of foresight which will further complicate the communication necessary to find solutions”Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the press, responding to the expulsions decided by the European Union.
“This will inevitably lead to retaliatory measures”. Moscow announced on Friday the expulsion of 45 Polish diplomats from the embassy in Moscow and its general consulates in Irkutsk, Kaliningrad and Saint Petersburg.
In March, the Ukrainian authorities had published 600 names presented as Russian agents stationed abroad. AFP could not obtain confirmation that diplomats expelled since were on the list. But Russian officers had already been publicly confused in several cases, in particular by specialized sites, in recent months.
And the services themselves necessarily knew a certain number of them. “We are vigilant, we know more or less who is doing what”, explains to AFP a Western security source. The Russians have also not been very discreet in Europe in recent years, getting caught red-handed in cases of murders, attempts and other clandestine operations.
“They make mistakes”
“The fact that we were able to trace them back shows that they make mistakes.”notes this source which evokes in particular a commando to the members “almost all identified because their clandestine practices were not up to standard”.
Although the names of the agents were not unknown to Western agencies, “the fact that it is communicated publicly perhaps creates an opportunity”explains to AFP Damien Puyvelde, intelligence expert at the University of Glasgow.
“There is a very clear communication strategy here from the Ukrainian government to put pressure on Westerners and the rest of the world in every possible way.”.
However, the impacts of these evictions are complex to assess. “The coordinated expulsions of these pseudo Russian diplomats – the largest since World War II – will have a severe impact on Russian espionage”assures Nathan Sales, former American ambassador now an analyst at the think-tank Soufan Center.
“Russian embassies are spy nests”
“Russian embassies are nests of spies and losing so many operators will complicate the Kremlin’s ability to gather information, sow division and influence the continent’s elections.”
Alexandre Papaemmanuel, intelligence expert and professor at the Institute of Political Studies (IEP) in Paris, underlines for his part that “embassies have always been privileged information centers for collecting information, processing it, approving it in intelligence and relaying it to strategic decision-makers”. He recalls that on April 5, 1983, during a resounding story of espionage – the Farewell affair – “two buses came to pick up 47 expelled Soviet diplomats from the USSR embassy. This gives an idea of the number of spies present in Paris at the time”.
Still, Moscow will still have informants in Europe, in the former republics of the Soviet bloc but also in major capitals like Paris, Berlin or London. It also has support there that is displayed in broad daylight.
And it would be daring to imagine his networks being brought down in a few days, warns Damien Van Puyvelde. Because when men change, contacts remain. “There is a continuity of service. There are archives”he recalls, emphasizing that “reciprocity in expulsions makes it a zero-sum game”.