- Hundreds of Russian diplomatic staff have been expelled by European countries since March.
- Russia’s attack on Ukraine prompted the deportations, but many of those deported are suspected of espionage.
- European countries have fought an increasingly intense battle against Russian espionage in recent years.
In the midst of the war in Ukraine, a clandestine battle is being fought across Europe.
Since early March, more than 400 Russian diplomatic staff have been expelled from embassies and diplomatic missions across the continent, including in most EU countries.
The majority of those deported are suspected of being Russian intelligence agents.
Major expulsions of diplomatic personnel have already occurred. European countries deported nearly 200 Russians after Russian intelligence agents attempted to assassinate fugitive spy Sergei Skripal in the UK in 2018.
However, this wave of deportations is the largest since the fall of the Soviet Union, and it’s possible the greatest in history.
Everyone is in it
The current wave is notable for the number of Russians expelled and the number of countries deporting them: 23 EU countries, three non-EU European countries and the EU itself.
Chris Miller, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, called the deportations “a long-awaited response to Russian security service activity in Europe.”
“For too long, many European governments have given them carte blanche, even as Russian agents have been implicated in assassinations and bombings from Berlin to London,” said Miller, who is also Eurasia director at Foreign Policy. Research Institute, to Insider.
Underlining the significance of the decision is the fact that several of the countries carrying out the deportations – including Austria, Bulgaria and Germany – have good relations with Moscow. Some of the expelled staff were legitimate diplomats, like the Russian Ambassador to Lithuaniawhose expulsion was linked to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Nevertheless, the majority of those deported were suspected of being intelligence officers or diplomats acting in violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which governs diplomatic relations between countries.
Poland expelled 45 Russian diplomats on March 23, which a country spokesperson head of intelligence justified by saying: “Russia uses diplomacy not to keep in touch with partners, but to push false allegations and false propaganda statements against the West.”
A wide network of activities
Pushing false claims, otherwise known as disinformation, has been a staple of Russian activity in Europe for decades. In doing so, Moscow aims to promote its interests and erode trust in foreign governments and institutions.
Russian agents in a target country increase the reach of disinformation by approaching and collaborating with locals who amplify it.
Russian interference was detected in 2017 french presidential and German federal electionscalling on Catalonia to to separate from Spainand in 2014 in Scotland independence referendum. Some suspect that Russia interfered in the 2016 Vote for Brexit to advance Moscow’s aim of undermining the EU.
Russian espionage also targets NATO and the EU as organizations. In October, NATO expelled eight “undeclared” intelligence agents from the Russian mission to the alliance. In response, Russia suspended its mission.
Russian espionage, with the help of the local population, targeted military and space related technology in Europe. Russian agents are also suspected of having committed or attempted sabotage and assassination inside European countries.
In 2014, two warehouses in the Czech Republic belonging to the arms company EMCO were bombed. EMCO had supplied weapons to Ukraine and two Russians from the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service, were suspected of carrying out the attack.
A high-ranking GRU officer was in Bulgaria a year later, when the Bulgarian owner of EMCO and two other have been poisoned. All three survived. The same GRU officer was also behind the assassination attempt of Skripal and his daughter in the UK in 2018.
German courts have also discovered that Russian agents murdered a Chechen dissident in Berlin in 2019.
Advancing Europe’s Security
While Europe’s fight against Russian espionage has spread across the continent, this espionage is more concentrated in a few regions.
Belgium and Austria are considered hubs for russian spy activitypartly because the number of international organizations in Vienna and Brussels allows Moscow to accredit more agents as diplomats.
Some governments have made the problem worse through lax enforcement or indifference.
“The Austrian and Hungarian governments are notorious for their open-door attitude towards Russian agents,” Miller told Insider. Tellingly, Hungary, which has good relations with Moscow, did not deport any Russians during this wave of deportations.
In response to growing Russian malign activity, NATO created the Joint Intelligence and Security Division in 2016. The JISD was meant to increase the alliance’s intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities. NATO strengthened unity in 2020.
Following the bombing of a warehouse in the Czech Republic, NATO carried out a “thorough audit” of the presence of intelligence services in Russian diplomatic outposts in Europe and found that they were “filled” with Russian agents, according to to the Economist.
Russia has reacted to the recent expulsions by sending diplomats home from European countries and the The EU itself. This month, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister mentioned Moscow was still evaluating the expulsions of its personnel but that “we plead for the diplomatic channels to remain open”.
Miller said the deportations by European countries were a good step, “but after three decades of giving free rein to Russian agents across the continent, there is still a lot to do.”
Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a master’s degree in security studies and European affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.