The US, EU, Canada, and Australia upped the ante with Moscow on Monday with an announcement that most Western nations have ordered the expulsion of at least 117 Russian diplomats and their families from their respective countries as part of a massive coordinated response to the poisoning of former double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who were exposed to a lethal Soviet-designed chemical weapon known as ‘Novichok’ in the British cathedral city of Salisbury on March 4.
The Kremlin’s attack on Skripal and the West’s response has moved the two sides into an ever-deeper phase of what is now, undoubtedly, a second Cold War.
According to White House sources, several of the Russian nationals ordered back to Moscow are active clandestine service officers working for the FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB. In addition to saying that the FSB has at least 100 known active agents operating in the US, officials in Washinton said the 60 Russians ordered out of the country were working as Kremlin spies under full diplomatic cover, including at least a dozen members at Russia’s mission to the United Nations in New York.
In a statement released shortly after the announcement, officials from several of the nations involved said they synchronised efforts as a signal to the Kremlin that the West stands in full solidarity with the United Kingdom and is ready to carry out active measures aimed at combatting Russia’s formidable intelligence operations that target the Euro-Atlantic partnership.
“This was a reckless attempt by the government to murder a British citizen and his daughter on British soil with a military-grade nerve agent. It cannot go unanswered. The Salisbury attack was only the latest in a long series of Russian efforts to undermine international peace and stability…The Russian government has shown malicious contempt for the sovereignty and security of countries worldwide. It has repeatedly sought to subvert and discredit Western institutions. These efforts are ongoing,” officials in Washington said in response to Monday’s developments.
The Russian Federation will also be forced to shutter its consulate in the Pacific Northwest city of Seattle, the second consulate lost by Moscow in the last eight months because of the activities of its spies, who have gone back to using an old Cold War tactic whereby intelligence operatives use a diplomatic mission as cover to carry out espionage activities.
In September 2017, the State Department ordered the closure of the Russian consulate in San Francisco – one of Moscow’s oldest diplomatic missions in North America – after four Russian diplomats posted to the consulate were declared persona non grata after the FBI and CIA concluded they were involved in espionage activities related to tapping into communications grids on the west coast of the United States and had taken part in Russia’s interference campaign in the 2016 US presidential elections. Before the consulate closed, smoke was seen billowing out of the building, suggesting sensitive materials were being destroyed.
Former US President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian officials – the largest number of diplomats forced to leave since 2001 – and the seizure of two US residences that were identified by the FBI as locales used by Russian intelligence agents just prior to the end of his term in office in December 2016 in retaliation for what American spy agencies said was Russian interference in the presidential election.
The Kremlin responded to the punitive actions by the Obama administration and the September closure by ordering the US missions in Russia to reduce their staff by 755 people.
In losing the Seattle facility, Russia has only its embassy in Washington and consulates in New York and Houston still in active service in the United States.
“Today, President Donald J. Trump ordered the expulsion of dozens of Russian intelligence officers from the United States and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle due to its proximity to one of our submarine bases and Boeing. The US takes this action in conjunction with our NATO allies and partners around the world in response to Russia’s use of a military-grade chemical weapon on the soil of the United Kingdom, the latest in its ongoing pattern of destabilizing activities around the world. Today’s actions make the United States safer by reducing Russia’s ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations that threaten the United States’ national security. With these steps, the United States and our allies make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences. The US stands ready to cooperate to build a better relationship with Russia, but this can only happen with a change in the Russian government’s behaviour,” the White House said in a press release following the announced expulsion.
The State Department released a statement saying it was in the process of expelling the 12 intelligence operatives from the Russian Mission to the United Nations who have abused their privilege of residence in the US.
European Council President Donald Tusk, who was in the Bulgarian Black Sea port city of Varna on March 26 for an EU-Turkey summit, said 14 European Union countries had also expelled Russian diplomats from their respective missions, saying “the European Council has condemned, in the strongest possible terms, the recent attack in Salisbury”, and indicated that the Member States were ordering certain Russians citizens out of their respective countries for engaging in espionage activities while under the cover of embassy staff.
Germany, France, and Poland each expelled four diplomats; Lithuania and the Czech Republic ordered the expulsion of three Russian nationals; Denmark, Italy, Spain, Latvia, and the Netherlands expelled two; Sweden, Finland, Romania, Croatia, Hungary, Norway, and Estonia each ordered one Russian out. Ireland is expected to follow suit when it makes an announcement later in the week. Iceland has so far opted not to expel any Russians from Moscow’s tiny diplomatic corps in Reykjavik but did announce that it will not send an official delegation to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, hosted by Russia later this summer.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, “In solidarity with our British partners, we have notified the Russian authorities of our decision to expel from France four Russian personnel with diplomatic status within a week.”
Non-EU member Ukraine, which has been locked in a bloody war with Moscow and local pro-Russian separatist proxies in since April 2014, ordered 13 Russian diplomats out of the country.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the bloc “didn’t take the decision lightly”, but Russia’s lack of an explanation over the Salisbury attack and mounting evidence that the highly toxic chemical agent used has been traced to a laboratory in Russia.
“Russia has gone too far. An assassination attempt in a European city with a Russian nerve agent is completely unacceptable. The UK has our full support.,” tweeted Danish prime minister Lars Rasmussen.
Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius also announced that his country would sanction 21 Russian citizens and ban 23 others from entering the country.
Joining the European efforts were Albania and FYROM/Macedonia, both EU candidate members, who ordered the departure of two Russians from their embassy in the Albanian capital Tirana and one Russian official based in Skopje.
A statement from the office of Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said Russia’s attack “poses a serious threat to the security of the whole of Europe.”
NATO-member Canada – a staunch ally of Ukraine in its deadly four-year war with Russia that has killed nearly 11,000 people – announced that it would expel four Kremlin agents from Moscow’s embassy in Ottawa, as well as its consulate in Montreal.
“The four have been identified as intelligence officers who have used their diplomatic status to undermine Canada’s security or interfere in our democracy,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement.
Ottawa will also deny the credentials of three Russians who recently applied to work in Canada as part of the Kremlin’s diplomatic corps.
Australia – though not a NATO member, but a major military and intelligence contributor to the Western alliance – also confirmed that it too would expel two Russian diplomats who were in the country as undeclared intelligence officers
The expulsions were also welcomed by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who said on Twitter, “Today’s extraordinary international response by our allies stands in history as the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers and will help defend our shared security. Russia cannot break international rules with impunity.”
The UK has already expelled 23 Russian diplomats in response to the attack on Skripal and his daughter, which British Prime Minister Theresa May said was a direct attack by Russian agents on UK soil.
The move prompted a reciprocal response from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who ordered the ejection of the same number of British diplomats from Moscow.
As news broke of the massive coordinated effort by the West to stymie Russia’s intelligence activities, Putin is reported to have said that his response will be based on the principle of reciprocity, adding that the decision by Western countries was a “grave mistake”.
May scored a rare diplomatic victory at a Brussels summit last week when the EU heads of state criticised the Salisbury attack and agreed that Russia was likely responsible, which prompted the European Union to recall its ambassador to Moscow, a move described by EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker dubbed “unprecedented”.
“I have found great solidarity from our friends and partners in the EU, North America, NATO and beyond over the past three weeks as we have confronted the aftermath of the Salisbury incident,” the prime minister said. “And together we have sent a message that we will not tolerate Russia’s continued attempts to flout international law and undermine our values.” She added: “If the Kremlin’s goal is to divide and intimidate the Western alliance, then their efforts have spectacularly backfired,” May said in response to her allies’ sweeping retaliatory measures.
The growing animosity between the West and Russia is likely to worsen in the short term as the number of tit-for-tat diplomatic incidents become more frequent. Putin’s aggressive attacks on Western democratic institutions and his overtly bellicose rhetoric touting Russia’s nuclear capabilities will force NATO and its allies to return to the Cold War security posture of containment in regards to Moscow.
The Western Allies will, however, need to develop an updated unified strategy that combines diplomatic pushback through back channels and the use of both hard and soft power if they hope to deter Putin from making ever-more exotic claims about Russia’s newest technology for its strategic rocket forces or fulfilling his ultimate dream of forcibly annexing more territory from areas that were once part of the Soviet Union.
Trump’s refusal to take a tough line with the Kremlin has severely hindered the West’s abilities to respond to Russia with a unified voice. The self-declared isolationist president who has frequently complimented Putin drew the ire of officials in Britain and Europe for refusing to publicly link either the FSB or Putin to Skripal when he failed to address the attack during a phone call with Putin only days after British intelligence had identified the chemical agent used to poison Skripal and his daughter.
Trump also came under fire from his own national security team when he Tweeted a thank you to Putin in September for helping him to “cut back on the expense of keeping a larger US diplomatic presence in Moscow”.
Trump is also facing growing criticism both at home and abroad for calling Putin to congratulate him on his re-election on days after the chemical attack in Salisbury.
US policy towards Russia has grown more aggressive since the start of the year, but Trump continues to baulk at responding to Putin’s continued provocations. A growing number of critics say Trump refuses to take a tough line with the Kremlin due to his visceral opposition to special counsel Robert Mueller and his ongoing investigation into a possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Russian intelligence services, as well as Trump’s past business relationships with Russian powerful billionaire oligarchs, all of whom have close ties to Putin.