Russia retains massive global diplomatic footprint despite recent expulsions

Russian embassiesThough unprecedented in size, the recent expulsions of over 150 diplomats by nearly 30 countries and organizations around the world have hardly made a dent on Russia’s huge diplomatic footprint. The coordinated expulsions were announced last week in response to Britain’s allegation that the Kremlin tried to kill a Russian former spy living in England. Sergei Skripal, 66, who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, and has been living in England since 2010, is fighting for his life after being poisoned with what London claims was a military-grade nerve agent. Nearly every European country, as well as Canada, Australia and the United States, expelled Russian diplomats in response to the attack on Skripal.

The largest share of the expulsions came from the United States, where the White House announced that 60 Russian diplomats had been ordered to leave by the end of the week. The majority of these diplomats are posted at the Russian embassy in Washington and consulate in New York. At least a dozen more are serving in Russia’s permanent mission at the United Nations in New York. On Thursday, several US media outlets said that all 60 Russians told to leave the US are undeclared intelligence officers serving under diplomatic cover. Fox News quoted an unnamed “senior administration official” in the US as saying that “these are not diplomats that we expelled […]. They are intelligence officers […] operating under diplomatic cover”. The official added that the Russians were expelled because they “were engaging in activities that were not commensurate with their diplomatic roles and functions”. That description is often used by governments to allude to diplomats who are in fact engaging in espionage or other intelligence-related activities.

But in an analysis piece written for the BBC, Alex Oliver, research director at the Lowy Institute in Australia, points out that the 150 diplomats expelled in recent days are but “a tiny part” of Russia’s massive diplomatic presence around the world. With 242 diplomatic posts around the world, Russia has the world’s fourth largest diplomatic footprint, behind the United States, China and France. Several thousand Russian diplomats are stationed at any one time in 143 Russian embassies, 87 consulates, and about a dozen other diplomatic missions in nearly every country in the world. Of these, approximately 170 serve in the United States. The 60 expulsions announced last week by the US government, will still leave Russia with over 100 accredited diplomats in America —many of whom are presumably intelligence officers. Earlier today, Moscow announced that it would expel 60 American diplomats, as well as nearly 100 more diplomats for other countries. The White House said that it may choose to respond with further expulsions of Russian diplomatic personnel.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 April 2018 | Permalink

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Britain shared “unprecedented” intelligence details to secure expulsions of Russians

Diplomatic ExpulsionsBritain secured the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats in history by sharing “unprecedented degrees of intelligence” with dozens of foreign countries about the attempted killing of former spy Sergei Skripal. Nearly 30 countries and international organizations, including the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have expelled or refused to accredit over 150 Russian diplomats in the past 72 hours. The coordinated move came in response to the alleged attack on Skripal, a Russian former intelligence officer who has been living in England since 2010. Skripal left Russia after he was released from prison as part of a spy swap between Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. He had previously been caught spying on Russia for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6. Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, are currently in a comatose state in hospital.

The United States, Canada and Australia joined most European countries in expelling Russian spies, after Britain accused Moscow of using a Soviet-era nerve agent to attack the Skripals. But according to a senior British government official, the coordinated expulsions were not coincidental. The official, who refused to be named, told The Financial Times that the British government took the unprecedented decision to share “unprecedented degrees of intelligence” with dozens of countries in order to convince them to take action against the Kremlin. Shared information included complete intelligence assessments of Russian activities. Complete intelligence assessments are rarely —if ever— shared by nations. The latter typically share headline assessments —short snippets of longer analyses produced by their intelligence agencies— with allied nations. But in this case, British officials were authorized to share complete intelligence reports along with underlying data, which included a “detailed scientific analysis of the nerve agent used in the attack”, said The Financial Times.

Sharing complete intelligence reports runs the risk of revealing how much a nation knows about the secret activities of its adversaries, and may end up harming its intelligence-collection efforts. But the paper said that the complete intelligence shared with dozens of countries around the world convinced them that “there was no plausible alternative other than […] the Russian state” was behind the attack on the Skripals. Moreover, said the paper, London shared intelligence with foreign governments that pointed to the existence of an “explicit” state-backed assassination program run by the Kremlin. The program allegedly includes targets in numerous countries worldwide, said The Financial Times. The Russian government has vehemently rejected London’s assertions and has suggested that the attack on the Skripals was part of a British intelligence operation aimed at turning Russia into an international pariah.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 March 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: Will the mass expulsion of diplomats affect Russia’s spy capabilities?

Russian embassy in WashingtonRelations between Russia and much of the West reached a new low on Monday, with the expulsion of over 100 Russian diplomats from two dozen countries around the world. The unprecedented expulsions were publicized on Monday with a series of coordinated announcements issued from nearly every European capital, as well as from Washington, Ottawa and Canberra. By the early hours of Tuesday, the number of Russian diplomatic expulsions had reached 118 —not counting the 23 Russian so-called “undeclared intelligence officers” that were expelled from Britain last week. Further expulsions of Russian diplomats are expected in the coming days.

It is indeed difficult to overstate the significance of this development in the diplomatic and intelligence spheres. Monday’s announcements signified the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence personnel (intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover) in history, and is remarkable even by Cold War standards. In the United States, the administration of President Donald Trump expelled no fewer than 60 Russian diplomats and shut down the Russian consulate in Seattle. Such a move would have been viewed as aggressive even for Mr. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is known for her hardline anti-Russian stance. In Europe, the move to expel dozens of Russian envoys from 23 different countries —most of them European Union members— was a rare act of unity that surprised European observers as much as it did the Russians.

RUSSIA’S ESPIONAGE CAPABILITY

However, in considering the unprecedented number of diplomatic expulsions from an intelligence point of view, the question that arises is, how will these developments affect Russia’s espionage capabilities abroad? If the Kremlin did indeed authorize the attempted assassination of the Russian defector Sergei Skripal, it must be assumed that it expected some kind of reaction from London, possibly in the form of limited diplomatic expulsions. The resulting worldwide wave of expulsions must have caught Russian intelligence planners by surprise. There is little question, therefore, that these are difficult hours for the GRU, Russia’s military-run Main Intelligence Directorate, and the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. These agencies will be losing as much as two thirds of their official-cover officers in Europe and North America. The last time this happened on such a massive scale was during World War II, as Soviet embassies across Europe were unceremoniously shut down by the advancing Nazi forces. Read more of this post

EU recalls envoy to Moscow over Skripal poisoning, more expulsions may follow

Theresa MayThe European Union has recalled its ambassador to Moscow in an apparent response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a Russian double agent, who was attacked with a nerve agent in England earlier this month. Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, remain in critical condition in hospital, nearly three weeks after being poisoned with a nerve agent that British scientists say belongs to Russia’s Cold-War-era chemical stockpiles. Moscow has angrily rejected claims that Skripal, who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, was on a Kremlin-approved hit-list of defectors. But British Prime Minister Theresa May traveled to Brussels on Thursday to brief European Union heads of state about the attack on Skripal.

The summit concluded in the early hours of Friday with the publication of a joint statement, signed by every participating head of state, backing the British claims and expressing outrage at Moscow’s alleged use of a military-grade nerve agent on British soil. The statement said that EU leaders “agree with the United Kingdom government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible” for the attack on the Skripals. “There is no plausible alternative explanation”, said the statement, and described the attack on the two Russians as a “grave challenge to our shared security”. The statement will be seen as a foreign-policy triumph by London, as Britain has been contacting EU governments seeking from them a direct condemnation of Russia and possible diplomatic actions in response to the alleged attack.

The jointly authored statement also said that the EU would recall its ambassador to Moscow, effective immediately. Markus Ederer, a German diplomat who represents the EU in the Russian capital, will be leaving Russia “for a month of consultations”, in what appears to be a symbolic act of protest by the Europeans. However, some EU members threatened further action and said that they would “coordinate on the consequences to be drawn in the light of” future Russian actions on the matter of the Skripals. In statements made to reporters early on Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that there may be “further punitive measures” against Russia, adding that they would be coordinated among EU states.

Some media reported that at least five EU member states were considering expelling undeclared Russian intelligence officers from their soil in response to the alleged Russian attack in England. They are said to include France, Lithuania and Poland. The London-based newspaper Daily Telegraph reported that Russia was in danger of having its Western European spy network dismantled in response to the attack on the Skripals. Some EU countries, however, including Italy and Greece, appeared less interested in taking action against Russia. The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, said on Thursday that his government expressed its “solidarity with the United Kingdom”, but that the EU had to investigate what happened in England on March 4.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 March 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: Decoding Britain’s response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal

Russian embassy LondonAs expected, Moscow snubbed the British government’s demand for information into how a Russian-produced military-grade nerve agent ended up being used in the streets of Salisbury, England. As British Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon, Sergei Skripal continued to fight for his life in a hospital in southern England. His daughter, Yulia, was also comatose, having been poisoned with the same Cold-War-era nerve agent as her father. This blog has followed the case of Sergei Skripal since 2010, when he arrived with his family in the United Kingdom after he was released from a Russian prison, having served the majority of a 13-year sentence for spying for Britain.

Just hours after the attack on the Skripals, British defense and intelligence experts concluded that it had been authorized by the Kremlin. On Wednesday, Prime Minister May laid out a series of measures that the British government will be taking in response to what London claims was a Russian-sponsored criminal assault on British soil. Some of the measures announced by May, such as asking the home secretary whether additional counter-espionage measures are needed to combat hostile activities by foreign agents in the UK, are speculative. The British prime minister also said that the state would develop new proposals for legislative powers to “harden our defenses against all forms of hostile state activity”. But she did not specify what these proposals will be, and it may be months —even years— before such measures are implemented.

The primary direct measure taken by Britain in response to the attack against Skripal centers on the immediate expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from Britain. They have reportedly been given a week to leave the country, along with their families. When they do so, they will become part of the largest expulsion of foreign diplomats from British soil since 1985, when London expelled 31 Soviet diplomats in response to revelations of espionage against Britain made by Soviet intelligence defector Oleg Gordievsky. Although impressive in size, the latest expulsions are dwarfed by the dramatic expulsion in 1971 of no fewer than 105 Soviet diplomats from Britain, following yet another defection of a Soviet intelligence officer, who remained anonymous.

It is important to note, however, that in 1971 there were more than 500 Soviet diplomats stationed in Britain. Today there are fewer than 60. This means that nearly 40 percent of the Russian diplomatic presence in the UK will expelled from the country by next week. What is more, the 23 diplomats selected for expulsion are, according to Mrs. May, “undeclared intelligence officers”. In other words, according to the British government, they are essentially masquerading as diplomats, when in fact they are intelligence officers, whose job is to facilitate espionage on British soil. It appears that these 23 so-called intelligence officers make up almost the entirety of Russia’s “official-cover” network on British soil. This means that the UK Foreign Office has decided to expel from Britain nearly every Russian diplomat that it believes is an intelligence officer. Read more of this post

Ukraine, Belarus expel diplomats following espionage claims

Ukrainian embassy in BelarusUkraine fired its deputy-head of foreign intelligence and expelled a Belarussian diplomat a day after the government of Belarus claimed that it busted a Ukrainian spy ring that recruited local agents. The chain of events began on October 25, when the Belarussian Committee for State Security (KGB) arrested a Ukrainian journalist. The journalist, Pavlo Sharoyko, is based in the Belarussian capital Minsk and works as the Belarus correspondent for the National Radio Company of Ukraine —the country’s public broadcaster. Even though Sharoyko was arrested in October, his imprisonment was not publicly announced by Belarus until last Saturday. On Tuesday, November 21, at a press conference held at the KGB headquarters in Minsk, KGB spokesman Dmitry Pobyarzhin told reporters that Sharoyko was arrested for engaging in espionage on behalf of the Ukrainian government.

According to Pobyarzhin, Sharoyko is an undercover intelligence officer masquerading as a journalist. His real employer, said Pobyarzhin, is the Chief Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. While based in Minsk, the Ukrainian radio correspondent allegedly built an extensive network of spies, consisting of Belarussian citizens who carried out espionage tasks in exchange for financial compensation, said Pobyarzhin. The KGB spokesman also claimed that Sharoyko was not officially associated with the Ukrainian embassy in Minsk, but he had a spy handler there. The alleged handler, a Ukrainian diplomat by the name of Ihor Skvortsov, had been confronted by the KGB and expelled from the country for engaging in espionage, said Pobyarzhin.

Late on Tuesday, The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said that Sharoyko had worked there as a spokesman before 2009, but rejected the charges against him. However, on Monday, a day after Sharoyko’s arrest was announced, Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, dismissed the deputy director of the country’s Foreign Intelligence Service, V. Sinkevich, from his post. It is not known whether the surprise dismissal is connected to the announcement by the Belarussian KGB. On Tuesday, Kiev announced that it had expelled a Belarussian diplomat from the embassy of Belarus in the Ukrainian capital, in response to the expulsion of Skvortsov the day before. The Ukrainian government did not name the expelled Belarussian diplomat.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 November 2017 | Permalink

Revealed: China arrested US diplomat believing him to be CIA officer

US Consulate ChengduAn American diplomat stationed in China was abducted and interrogated for several hours by Chinese authorities, who believed him to be an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency working under official cover. The alleged abduction took place in early 2016 but was revealed this week by the online news outlet Politico. The website said that the diplomat, who has not been named, was stationed at the United States consulate general in Chengdu, a city of 14 million that is the administrative capital of western China’s Sichuan province. Founded in 1985, the US consulate in Chengdu is one of Washington’s seven diplomatic and consular posts in China. It is staffed by 130 people, approximately 30 of whom are Americans and 100 are locally hired Chinese citizens. The facility’s consular district includes several Chinese provinces, including the politically sensitive Tibet Autonomous Region.

On Wednesday, Politico said it spoke with “more than half a dozen current and former national security officials” in the US, who confirmed that an American diplomat stationed at the Chengdu consulate was abducted and detained for several hours. The website said that the abduction took place in January 2016. The diplomat was reportedly “grabbed off the street” in the middle of the day by plainclothes Chinese officers and driven to a detention facility in an unmarked van. He was allegedly kept there for several hours despite his diplomatic status with full immunity, which protects diplomats from being subjected to arrest and detention in the host country. American officials claim that the Chinese authorities did not notify the US consulate of the diplomat’s whereabouts until several hours later. By that time, the diplomat had been aggressively interrogated and his responses had been filmed by his captors, who claimed that he was an officer of the CIA. He was later released but left the country soon afterwards, according to Politico.

American officials told the website that the diplomat’s abduction was “an unusually bold act” that illustrates an ongoing and increasingly tense confrontation between Chinese and American intelligence services. Several American diplomats told Politico that Chinese authorities followed them around and in some cases broke into their apartments and “searched their rooms and belongings”. According to the news website, Washington responded to the American diplomat’s abduction by issuing a formal protest and threatening to expel Chinese intelligence officers operating in the US with diplomatic cover. However, it is not believed that the threat materialized.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 October 2017 | Permalink