More than 100 Kremlin diplomats in over 20 countries are in the midst of packing their belongings for their impending transfer back to Russia. But lost in the celebration of the show of force by Britain and its allies is an appreciation of the challenges these expulsions will ultimately pose to US intelligence agencies and the potential opportunity to truly impose costs on Moscow.
To be fair, the coordinated efforts of the West to respond in unison to the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter on British soil should be applauded. In an era when extreme nationalism often breeds intransigence, it is a welcome sight to see America and its partners join the United Kingdom in publicly stressing the consequences of flagrantly violating a nation's sovereignty.
That said, in diplomacy, the ultimate goal of imposing costs is to drive changes in the behavior of the belligerent party -- and to ideally do so in a manner that is not mutually destructive. As we contend below, based on our professional experience working to deter national security threats at home and abroad, the recent expulsions fall far short of the type of action needed to truly deter Russian aggression, and will present serious obstacles to the effectiveness of the US intelligence community.
Winners and losers
Muffled by the sound of champagne corks popping on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are the sighs and groans of FBI and CIA officers who are coming to terms with the reality that their jobs are about to get much harder.
Working in concert, our law enforcement and intelligence agencies fuse together to identify, monitor and neutralize threats from suspected foreign intelligence officers. These counterintelligence professionals share vital information regarding the identities and activities of foreign diplomats who may, in fact, be intelligence officers operating under cover.
Once the FBI and its partners suspect an individual of being a spy, an investigation is launched to gather the evidence necessary to build a case and either arrest or expel the intelligence officer. These are painstaking investigations that require significant time and resources in order to collect intelligence, determine patterns of life and identify associates.
Unlike investigating violent threats posed by criminals and terrorists -- where the primary focus of law enforcement is always on stopping a threat before it transpires -- in the spy catching business it's often better to wait, watch and then illuminate an entire network before deciding to pounce. In many cases, it can be more beneficial to simply let a known spy continue to operate, since the adage "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't" is particularly apt in counterintelligence.
The main challenge posed by the recent announcement to expel so many suspected Russian intelligence officers is that the US intelligence community will essentially be starting from square one to identify and learn the patterns of those who will replace the crop of expelled spies.
Looking abroad, CIA collection on Russia will similarly almost certainly be negatively impacted now that Russia has responded in kind by proportionally expelling American officials. The former Soviet Union is an especially tough environment in which to operate, and the contacts, area familiarization and language abilities gleaned by CIA officers in the country cannot easily be replicated. The recent short-term show of unity in removing Russian intelligence officers may result in long-term damage to our own efforts to collect critical intelligence overseas.
Setting aside the likely damage the recent announcement will have on domestic and international US intelligence collection efforts, we do not believe the mere expulsion of diplomats to be the kind of action that will change Russian behavior.
Likely before Putin and his comrades gave the greenlight to kill Skripal in London, they conducted a cost-benefit analysis and ultimately determined it was more important for Russia to attempt to kill a former spy than it was to maintain positive relations with the West. Putin may be despised, but he is not stupid, and he likely predicted some sort of coordinated response by Britain and its allies. If anything, the West working in concert will only help further Putin's domestic narrative that Russia is the victim.
One added benefit for Russia in the simple expulsion of diplomats is that this reactive measure doesn't hold accountable those actually responsible for aggressive acts like the attempted murder of Skripal, or efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 US election. No one we have spoken to in our field believes these operations are run out of an embassy, but instead are coordinated and launched from Moscow.
Had the United States sought to truly impose real costs and drive a change in behavior, it would have gone beyond diplomatic expulsions and hit Putin and his allies in their wallets. With the constant crossover between Russian intelligence and commercial interests, it would not be difficult for US intelligence agencies to quickly present the White House with a list of Russian-tied entities here in America that help pad the pockets of Russian oligarchs.
According to the New York Times, firms like Vnesheconombank, with offices in New York, and, according to the Economist, Gazprom, Russia's state-owned gas company with subsidiaries in Western Europe, are hotbeds of Russian intelligence activity -- that also happen to generate billions of dollars in revenue for the Russian state. The Kremlin would never permit Western companies like Exxon-Mobil or British Petroleum to serve as intelligence collection platforms in Moscow, so why do we allow it in the West?
If America and its allies were serious about inflicting pain in response to Russian aggression, we would go beyond simply declaring a group of expendable and replaceable diplomats persona non grata: we would truly get tough and go after the money.
Put simply, we have to actively work to drive changes in their behavior. Simply waiting for Russia to spontaneously denounce its murderous tactics and its attacks on Western democracy is not an option. To quote Vladimir Putin, "Nobody should pin their hopes on a miracle."