This research is done by Lukas Andriukaitis exclusively for Res Publica – Civic Resilience Center. Lukas Andriukaitis is an open-source researcher and trainer, focusing on Kremlin disinformation and military involvement in conflicts around the globe. For the past several years he has focused on Russian involvement in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and Venezuela.
In April 2021, Kremlin has faced a coordinate response from European Union and NATO countries for their espionage and sabotage activities carried out by operatives working under the diplomatic cover. This was one of the largest coordinated Western reaction to Kremlin’s illicit Kremlin’s activities since the Cold War and one of the two large .
It is widely accepted that embassies around the world house active intelligence operatives under diplomatic cover, and their presence is generally tolerated until they engage in illegal activity that cannot be tolerated anymore, ending up in the host country declaring them persona non grata. Such expulsions often times face counter-expulsions that negatively affects their own activities and services in the given country. Due to this, governments are typically careful with expelling diplomats, taking it as a last resort. Yet, over the last decade a dramatic uptick in Russian malign activities in several NATO and European Union countries has compelled Western governments to resort to expulsions. This serves as a policy tool, similar to economic sanctions, that imposes costs on Russian malign behavior, becoming both public and punitive affairs.
The latest uptick of coordinated expulsions happened in April 2021, after the Czech government has accused Russian secret services of being behind a fatal explosion at an arms depot in eastern Czech Republic in 2014. In solidarity with the Czech Republic, several Central European and the Baltic states from NATO also expelled Russian diplomats. Slovakia expelled three Russian diplomats, Lithuania two, and Estonia and Romania each expelled one diplomat, soon after more countries joined this action of solidarity. This represented the second “solidarity expulsion” conducted by NATO member states in three years following the large Russian diplomatic expulsions after the Novichok poisoning in 2018, when Russian operatives poisoned Sergey and Yulia Skripal in United Kingdom. This article will analyze the latest developments in Russian diplomat expulsion by Western countries, the reasons behind it and who are the expelled diplomats.
Czech Republic Response
In 2014, agents from GRU, Russian military intelligence services, caused a massive explosion of 58 tons of ammunition in the Vrbětice ammunition depot area. This attack resulted in killing two Czech citizens, at the same time threatening the safety of hundreds of people in the nearby villages and causing multi-million euro of damages. Czech media have previously reported that the ammunition at the targeted depot was destined for Ukrainian forces fighting pro-Russian rebels in Donbas region.
Proof of Kremlin intelligence involvement in these operations started appearing publicly in in April 2021. In response to this crime, Czech government has expelled 18 individuals from the Russian embassy that were identified as spies working under the cover of diplomats from either military intelligence GRU or the foreign intelligence services SVR. In response to this, the Kremlin has escalated the tension by expelling 20 Czechs from the Embassy in Moscow, most of them being diplomats. After the expulsion, the Czech Embassy was set to be paralyzed with only 10 diplomats left, to which they responded by giving Russia an ultimatum to allow the return of the Czech diplomats back to Moscow.
The ultimatum was rejected by Moscow and Prague decreased the numbers in the Russian embassy to be equal to the number of people in its Czech counterpart in Moscow totaling to 60 expelled diplomats. Despite the list of the names of expelled diplomats was not publicly disclosed in any media articles, open-source research allowed to identify the names of the expelled diplomats.
According to the publicly available information, at least half of the expelled Russians held high positions in the Embassy. Among others First Secretary and former Spokesperson Alexey Kolmakov, who was very active in the Koněv affair, and First Secretary Alexandr Antonov, who was involved in a in the similarly named affair also known as “the man with ricin”. According to the diplomat lists, some of the other high ranking expelled diplomats included Maksim Krailin (First Secretary /Political Affairs), Andrey Makarenko (First Secretary /Political Affairs), Aleksey Triakin (First Secretary) and Valeriy Terentiev (Vice-Consul). Most of these diplomats also came with spouses who were also expelled from Czech Republic.
Even though the Vrbětice affair is definitively the most violent and an undisputable violation of Czech sovereignty, this is not the only example of Russia’s hybrid attacks on the country. In 2020 the removal of an old statue of Soviet Marshall Ivan Konev from a public space in Prague led to disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and the mobilization of Czech pro-Kremlin far-left and far-right extremists.
United States Response
On April 15, 2021, the U.S. government announced a set of responses to Russia’s interference in the 2020 US presidential election, together with putting bounties on US and coalition personnel serving in Afghanistan. These responses have been named by U.S. as taking action to punish Russia for various ”harmful foreign activities”.
According to the White House, 32 entities and individuals linked to Moscow are being sanctioned for disinformation efforts and interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Ten personnel from Russia’s diplomatic mission in Washington were expelled, including “representatives of Russian intelligence services,” according to the White House.
The same technique of comparing the lists can be applied to find the names of the expelled diplomats. Currently most updated list found on Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website can be compared with a list of diplomats published in 2020 on State Department website. Once the 2021 State Department diplomat list will be published, more reliable results will be possible to obtain.
To this, Kremlin responded with a barrage of new U.S. sanctions and an expulsion of 10 U.S. diplomats from Moscow.
Romania and Bulgaria Response
On April 26, 2021 news have surfaced that Romania has expelled a Russian embassy official in solidarity with the other European Union and NATO countries. Romania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the “activities and actions” of the deputy military attaché Alexey Grishaev “contravene the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations since 1961.” Four days later a video was released showing Grishaev, allegedly meeting Romanian sources in order to obtain classified information.
Romania accused Grishaev of spying for the Kremlin’s military secret service, GRU and declared him a persona non grata. According to Romanian officials, Grishaev was trying recruit government officials to get hold of classified information about Romania’s security policies, NATO, other sensitive information related to Romania’s energy security and military sector.
In April 2021, Bulgaria also announced the expulsion of two Russian diplomats after suspicions that he was involved in four explosions at arms depots in Bulgaria. This was a result of a series of diplomatic disputes with Russia, after Russia’s involvement in explosions in arms factory in Bulgaria and the poisoning of Bulgarian arms manufacturer Emilian Gebrev and two other Bulgarian citizens in the spring of 2015. In response, Russia declared two Bulgarian diplomats persona non grata the same month. Bulgaria that was once the USSR’s closest ally in Europe, has expelled eight Russian diplomats for espionage since 2019.
Russia is facing a cut in staffing at its diplomatic missions in a number of NATO and European Union countries that is so severe that it will likely deal an irreversible, yet not fatal blow to Kremlin espionage efforts in the country. While dozens of intelligence operatives are expelled, dozens still remain, not to count in other Kremlin organizations and individuals residing in these countries that are used for intelligence purposes, such as businessmen, journalists, NGOs and others.
While intelligence officers are not diplomats and these actions are highly necessary to respond to and deter a wide range of Russian malign activity, they do come with a cost. The culminating effect of these policies forces Western countries to sharply limit its services to their citizens residing in or visiting Russia. In other words, diplomatic expulsions excessively diminish the diplomacy itself, making it hard to alert the limited personnel when an incident occurs. Russia must bear full responsibilities for its actions, yet the weaponization of diplomacy that Russia is pursuing will push the country to further international isolation and unpredictability.