The Costs of Weaponizing Russian and Western Diplomatic Expulsions

On April 17, 2021, the Czech Republic announced it would expel 18 Russian embassy employees identified as members of the SVR (Russia’s foreign intelligence service) and GRU (its military intelligence agency) after Czech security services determined that Russian intelligence services were responsible for a deadly 2014 warehouse blast that left two people dead. One of its largest embassies in Europe in a fairly small country, the Russian embassy in Prague housed well over 100 officials. In response, the Russian government expelled 20 Czech diplomats from Russia, effectively paralyzing the Czech Republic’s much smaller embassy. Due to the disparities in the number of diplomatic personnel at each embassy (Russia had 94 staff in Prague after the previous expulsions), the Czech government requested that Russia allow some Czech diplomatic staff to remain. When Moscow rebuffed the request, Prague was propelled to further downsize the Russian embassy in Prague to its equivalency with the Czech Embassy in Moscow by ordering more than 60 Russian employees to leave the country by the end of May.

In solidarity with the Czech Republic, several Central European and the Baltic states from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) also expelled Russian diplomats. Slovakia expelled three Russian diplomats, Lithuania two, and Estonia and Romania each expelled one diplomat. This represented the second “solidarity expulsion” conducted by NATO member states in three years following the large Russian diplomatic expulsions after the Novichok poisoning of Sergey and Yulia Skripal in the United Kingdom in 2018 in contravention of the United National Chemical Weapons Convention.

A Revitalized Policy Tool or a New Factor of Destabilization?

It is widely accepted that embassies house “diplomats” or active intelligence operatives under diplomatic cover, and their presence is generally tolerated until they engage in illegal activity and the host country resolves to expel them. Since expulsions generally illicit counter-expulsions that may negatively impact their own activities and services, governments are typically careful when purging embassy and consular staff. But as much as diplomatic expulsions are a time-honored and at times well-used tool of statecraft, they typically have been contained and quiet affairs, particularly in the early 2000s. The necessary point was made if the “diplomat,” who was caught in an act of espionage by the host government, was quietly expelled without any accompanying media coverage, without solidarity expulsions, and, hopefully, without poisoning bilateral relations further and eliciting a tit-for-tat retaliation.

But this is a new era. The number of Russian diplomat expulsions has significantly increased over the past several years, with some surprisingly occurring in NATO countries that have strong cultural, religious, and historical affinities with Russia. The CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program developed a chart compiling the expulsion of Russian diplomats by NATO member countries since 2010. Expulsion is defined as those Russian diplomats who were declared persona non-grata. According to Article 9 of the 1961 United Nations Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, receiving states can declare “at any time and without having to explain its decision” a member of a diplomatic mission as “not acceptable” or persona non-grata. Because the Czech Republic evoked a different article that allowed it to “downsize” and cap the size of the Russian embassy in Prague, this particular data point is excluded from this graph. The data was gathered by using English-language news sources and may not capture some expulsions that were not covered by the media.

A dramatic uptick in Russian malign activities in several NATO countries over the last decade has compelled many NATO governments to resort to expulsions as a policy tool, similar to their use of sanctions, in order to impose costs on Russian malign behavior. Diplomatic expulsions now seem to be both public and punitive affairs.

Expulsions significantly increased beginning in 2016 with the Obama administration’s decision to expel 35 Russian intelligence operatives and close two Russian compounds in Maryland and New York, allegedly used for intelligence-related purposes, in response to Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. Over the last 5 years, the United States has expelled more than 100 Russian “diplomats” and closed the Russian San Francisco and Seattle consulates.

The largest collective expulsion, however, occurred following the Salisbury attack against the Skripals in 2018 in which more than 20 countries expelled Russian diplomats (NATO members Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Greece chose not to expel any). In retaliation to this expulsion and subsequent policy actions, Russia declared persona non-grata and expelled at least 70 U.S. diplomats since 2018—many of them actual diplomats. The United States has been forced to close all of its Russia-based consulates (Saint Petersburg, Vladivostok, and Yekaterinburg).

There are three trends that can help explain increased Russian diplomatic expulsions: (1) the egregiousness of Russia’s behavior and violations of international law; (2) shifts in several NATO members’ domestic political environments; and (3) the need to identify other ways to impose costs (in addition to sanctions) on Russia short of military action. In other words, NATO member states have sought a different tool in their foreign policy toolbox to express disapproval with Russian actions that they view as threats to their sovereignty. Comparatively, expulsions seem to be a lower-cost, lower-risk option, although there are costs to closing diplomatic channels and limiting diplomatic services, such as consular affairs.

Russia’s Actions Are Backfiring

As a result of Russian actions, NATO and EU countries are working more closely together to push back against Russian and, most recently, Belarusian activities. When the Obama administration expelled Russian “diplomats” in 2016, it announced that “the United States and friends and allies around the world must work together to oppose Russia’s efforts to undermine established international norms of behavior and interfere with democratic governance.” Prime Minister May in 2018 similarly said, “. . . it is essential that we now come together—with our allies—to defend our security, to stand up for our values and to send a clear message to those who would seek to undermine them.” On April 20 of this year, former Czech foreign minister Jan Hamacek called “for collective action by EU and NATO countries leading to expulsions in solidarity.” When NATO member states called for solidarity as the United Kingdom did in 2018 and Czech Republic in 2021, other members were more likely to join in collective action.

The rise in individual and collective expulsions in the past five years shows not only an increase in NATO solidarity but also a shift in Russia and member states relations, especially ones that have historical connections with Russia. The latest expulsions are concentrated in former Warsaw Pact countries (Poland, Czech Republic, and Bulgaria) or post-Soviet states (Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania). All together, these governments have expelled at least 50 Russian diplomats in the past decade with 44 of these incidents being extensively covered by English news sources since 2018 (based on the authors’ data).

As a response to the 2018 poisonings in the United Kingdom, Bulgaria—a country that is highly vulnerable to Russian malign influence—just recalled their ambassador from Russia and did not expel a single Russian diplomat. However, by December 2020, Bulgaria had expelled six Russian diplomats for alleged espionage, followed by another three “diplomats” in 2021 as it “connected the dots” of a similar warehouse explosion of arms to be sent to Georgia and Ukraine and the attempted assassination of a Bulgarian arms dealer. Russia’s extensive economic and political influences, which lead some to view Bulgaria as “captured by Russia,” place enormous pressure on Bulgarian government officials when they implement anti-Kremlin policies. But Russian actions have become so blatant that scrutiny regarding Russian malign influence has compelled authorities to take action, particularly ahead of new elections in July.

Slovakia was the only country in the Visegrád Four, a grouping of Central European countries, that did not expel a Russian diplomat in a gesture of solidarity with the United Kingdom in 2018. As in Bulgaria, Russia had created an opaque patronage network in the Russian energy-dependent Slovakia, which benefited the long-serving and main political party, Smer—Socialna Demokracia (Smer-SD) and allowed it to exploit Slovak political parties that professed anti-EU and anti-NATO rhetoric. However, after the election of the anti-corruption party Ordinary People (OLANO) party in early 2020, Slovakia announced an expulsion of three Russian diplomats for Russia’s alleged involvement in the Berlin murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili. Slovak prime minister Igor Matovic said at the time that Slovakia was “not a banana republic,” and although Russia was a friend, it was necessary to “set a red line.”

In 2018, Greece, a country that also has close, historical ties with Russia, also declined to expel Russian diplomats following the Salisbury attack. Yet, just a few months later, Athens expelled two Russian diplomats for allegedly interfering in domestic affairs and attempting to bribe Greek officials. Russia was accused of trying to thwart the Prespa agreement, whereby North Macedonia would change its name and constitution, paving the way for the country to join NATO and the European Union. When the Russian government responded with tit-for-tat expulsions and blamed Washington for Greece’s decision, Greece responded with an unusually stern statement: “The constant disrespect for Greece must stop . . . unsubstantiated claims . . . that this decision was taken following pressure from third parties are unworthy of comment and indicate a mindset of people who do not understand the principles and values of Greek foreign policy.”

Although expulsions of diplomats alone may not greatly diminish Russia’s economic and political footprint in Europe or elsewhere, it can diminish some of its intelligence activities and influence networks, if executed well. The United Kingdom’s “Operation Foot” during the Cold War serves as an illustrative example. A Soviet network of spies in Great Britain was decimated when Britain expelled 105 Soviet diplomats in 1971. According to United Kingdom’s MI5, this action dealt such a heavy blow to the KGB that it had to rely on agencies in other locations for intelligence.

The expulsions of the past three years tell a more compelling story about changes in NATO members’ attitudes along the alliance’s eastern flank and the political backfiring of Russia’s heavy-handed tactics, particularly in those countries with the greatest Russian economic and political penetration. In January, Slovakia adopted new national security and defense strategies (last approved by the parliament in 2005), which now reference NATO’s and the European Union’s frameworks. The defense strategy points to Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity as one of the primary causes of the “deteriorated security environment in Europe” and states that “there is no better alternative to NATO’s collective defence.” Additionally, NATO and EU membership enable the republic “to develop capabilities” it could not provide alone.

In addition to expulsions, the Czech Republic’s interior minister, Jan Hamáček, announced that he would no longer travel to Russia to negotiate the purchase of the Sputnik V vaccine, and Industry and Trade Minister Karel Havlíček mentioned the exclusion of Rosatom from bidding on the largest government contract in the country: construction of the Doukavny nuclear power plant unit worth $9.3 billion. Most recently, Finance Minister Alena Schillerová, reportedly said that although it is a long shot, the country would seek an estimated $47 million in compensation from Russia for the 2014 explosions. It remains to be seen if this policy approach will hold following parliamentary elections in the fall.

The Double-Edged Expulsion Sword

While intelligence officers are not diplomats and the West needs more policy tools to respond to and deter a wide range of Russian malign activity, there appears to be a law of “diminishing expulsion returns” within an escalatory environment. After the latest round of Russia sanctions and expulsion of Russian diplomats by the United States in April, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced additional measures to Moscow’s own tit-for-tat expulsions. In May 2021, the Kremlin declared the United States an “unfriendly country,” thereby banning the U.S. embassy from hiring local Russian personnel. On June 2, the Russian government signaled it would end the 1992 “open lands” agreement, which allowed U.S. and Russian diplomats to travel freely in each country, restoring the Cold War practice of limiting diplomatic movement.

The culminating effect of these policies forces the U.S. embassy to sharply limit its services to include only emergency U.S. citizen services and issuance of immigrant visas for life-or-death emergencies. When U.S. personnel cannot receive new visas to re-enter Russia, this forces the United States to close consulates and dramatically limit consulate services in Russia. Moreover, this makes it incredibly difficult for Russians to obtain a U.S. visa and for U.S. diplomats to report on what is happening across Russia (which is likely an added political benefit for the Kremlin as it expunges Western influence internally).

In other words, if one weaponizes diplomatic expulsions excessively, diplomacy itself ceases. Additional channels of communication to avoid miscalculation are gone; there are few personnel to alert when an incident occurs. Misunderstanding and miscalculation grow, making it difficult for the Biden administration to achieve a more “stable and predictable” bilateral relationship with Russia. Russia must bear full responsibilities for its actions, but as diplomatic expulsions grow, the United States loses the ability to communicate with and understand Russia. This may be one of the outcomes the Kremlin seeks, but it risks further destabilizing relations between the West and Russia.

One of the top priorities on the agenda for the upcoming June 16 meeting between U.S. president Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin is a discussion on arms control. Any dialogue or negotiations regarding an additional New START extension or emerging technologies will require intensive diplomatic effort, which means true diplomats will have to engage extensively and intensively. Although expectations for major breakthroughs during the summit are low, if both countries want to see progress on arms control, it is time to get the diplomats and arms control experts to work—rather than working so hard to limit dialogue.

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Roksana Gabidullina is a program manager and research associate with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Heather A. Conley

Roksana Gabidullina