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The Spy Expulsion Game Between The West and Russia

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spy expulsion
A van pulls into the grounds of the Russian Embassy in London, March 20, 2018. VOA

Current and former U.S. and British intelligence officers say the West’s collective banishment this week of 115 Russian “diplomats” will be far less damaging to Russian espionage operations than British Prime Minister Theresa May and American officials have argued.

And they warn tit-for-tat expulsions the Kremlin is expected to order shortly will have much greater impact on Western intelligence missions in Russia.

They say the Cold War-era picture drawn by author John le Carré in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” with Russian espionage in the West depending mainly on spies based out of embassies under diplomatic cover, is anachronistic.

“Western expulsions will have only a very marginal impact on ongoing Russian operations, given the fact the SVR [Russian foreign espionage] and the GRU [Russian military intelligence] run their best sources very well, and they will have back-up communications arrangements for their assets,” a retired senior intelligence officer told VOA.

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spy expulsion
An analyst points to a screen at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s electronic intelligence service, in London, March, 14, 2014. VOA

The officer, a 30-year CIA veteran in counter-espionage who was a member of the team that unmasked CIA employee Aldrich Ames as a KGB mole in 1994, says in the Internet era, with hard-to-breach encrypted communications, “human contact is less crucial than in the past, adding “they will easily be able to use traveling ‘illegals’ to make human contact, anyway” when needed.

Uncertain effect

Speaking in the House of Commons Monday about the wave of expulsions being announced across Europe and by the United States, which ordered 60 diplomats — most of them presumed to be spies — to pack up, Britain’s Theresa May said the mass ejections, along with the 23 expulsions Britain announced last week, would in effect “dismantle” Russia’s spy network in the West.

She hailed the mass expulsions — a collective reprisal for what the British government claims was a Kremlin-approved effort on March 4 to poison on British soil the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia. She added the banishments amounted to “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history” — and May vowed never to allow Russian leader Vladimir Putin to rebuild an espionage machine in the West.

“Western expulsions have never crippled Russian intelligence collection,” says John Sipher, who retired in 2014 after a 28-year career in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, which included a stint in Moscow and running the CIA’s Russia operations.

spy expulsion
The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia, U.S. VOA

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Sipher told VOA: “The British expulsion of intelligence officers under Maggie Thatcher came the closest to hurting Russian espionage operations. The large number of Russian spies in the United States and Western countries has insured that losing a few doesn’t really do serious damage. If you have 150-200 intelligence officers in-country, losing 50 is painful, but hardly debilitating.”

The expulsions by Margaret Thatcher in 1985 came at the height of the Cold War.

Angry at the revelations about the extent of Soviet espionage activities in Britain that were revealed by KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky, Britain’s Iron Lady ordered out more than 30 Russian diplomats in a wave of tit-for-tat expulsions that only ended when the then British ambassador to Moscow Bryan Cartledge pleaded with her to stop because of the damage it was doing to his embassy.

“Never engage in a pissing match with a skunk, he possesses important natural advantages,” Cartledge advised in a telegram to London.

Previous Western expulsions

Cartledge’s advice is echoed by retired and current intelligence officers. Sipher says he doubts the West’s mass expulsions will alter Putin’s policies. “I’m not aware that previous diplomatic expulsions changed behavior,” he said.

spy expulsion
A police boat patrols on the River Thames near the building of British Secret Intelligence Service, SIS, also known as MI6, in London. VOA

Sipher worries the West will come off worse when it comes to the impact on intelligence gathering and espionage, saying that is how it has worked with like-for-like expulsions in the past.

“I don’t think expulsions are as important as in the past but I do think they hurt the West more than Russia. The Russians are consistent and tough, and quickly toss out as many U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers. Since our numbers are much smaller, it has a disproportionately bigger impact on us. We in the CIA often argued that it made no sense to throw out 50 [for example] Russian diplomats since it would impact a small percentage of their capability, but would devastate our collection ability,” he says.

Russia’s SVR and GRU have great strength in depth outside Russian embassies, Western intelligence officers say, running far more sleeper agents and other spies under non-official cover than Western agencies, and using them to establish contacts with academics, industrialists, and policymakers to gain access to sensitive and classified information. They can also be used to run logistical errands for deep-cover moles.

“The Russian illegals program is meant to be a strategic reserve in case they lose capability in their ‘legal’ residencies. The Soviet Union created the illegals program when they were young and realized that countries could break diplomatic relations altogether. They wanted to maintain their espionage networks even if the embassies closed,” Sipher says.

In 2010, the FBI broke up an illegals program in the United States of 10 Russian agents, among them Anna Chapman, whose flame-haired good looks immediately attracted intense Western media interest. The 10 sleepers were swapped by the U.S. for Sergei Skripal and three other Russian nationals, who had been spying for the West.

spy expulsion
Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, looks on inside the defendants’ cage as he attends a hearing at the Moscow military district court, Russia, Aug. 9, 2006. VOA

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“The 2010 arrest of illegals in the United States was probably a blow to the SVR. I don’t know how successful they have been in rebuilding the capability,” says Sipher. If the Russians haven’t, then the “recent expulsions from the U.S. may be digging into bone” a bit, he adds.

A serving FBI counter-espionage officer recently told VOA there are concerns about Russian sleeper agents and “illegals” buried in the computer and contracting firms known as “Beltway Bandits” in the Washington DC area, mostly in northern Virginia, which have large government contracts.

Many covers

Another edge the Russian espionage agencies have over their Western rivals, especially when it comes to their rivals in the United States, is they have less restrictions placed on them when it comes to using traveling businessmen, academics, non-profit workers and journalists for spying activities and intelligence collection, say Western intelligence professionals.

spy expulsion
A general view of the embassy of the Russian Federation in Paris, Feb. 14, 2017. VOA

Britain and France, which expelled four Russian “diplomats” are exceptions to this general rule — famously British intelligence secured a job easily at the Observer newspaper for double-agent Kim Philby in the 1950s when his MI6 bosses were trying to work out finally whether he had been working for the KGB all along.

“Given the minuscule numbers of U.S. intelligence officers in Russia compared to their presence in the United States, we always lose disproportionately in tit-for-tat,” said the CIA veteran who worked on the Aldrich Ames case. He believes, though, that the 60 expulsions announced by Washington Monday in the short term “should have some impact on the Russians’ developmental operations as there simply will be fewer of them out there hustling Americans.” VOA

Next Story

British Lawmakers Rejects Brexit Deal, May Faces Vote Of No-Confidence

The defeat also opens the way for parliament itself to take more control of any future negotiations with the EU.

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Theresa May
Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in London, Jan. 16, 2019. VOA

British Prime Minister Theresa May is facing a no-confidence vote Wednesday after members of parliament voted overwhelmingly against her plan to divorce Britain from the European Union.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labor Party, announced he had filed a motion of no confidence in the government immediately after the result Tuesday.

If May loses, Britain would hold a general election. But most analysts say they expect May will survive the vote, and the minority Northern Ireland party she relies on to keep her minority government in office has said it would back the government.

Tuesday’s vote was the biggest parliamentary reversal ever handed a sitting government, with lawmakers — including more than 100 rebels from her own ruling Conservative party — refusing to endorse a highly contentious Brexit deal.

The government’s defeat plunges into greater disarray Britain’s scheduled March 29 divorce from the European Union.

Britain, European Union, May
Anti-Brexit supporters hold European Union flags as they demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament on Jan. 14, 2019. VOA

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said Wednesday that after the British parliament’s rejection, the risk of reaching the deadline with no deal in place is higher than ever.

The much anticipated historic vote by the House of Commons of a draft deal, which took two years of ill-tempered haggling with European leaders to conclude, now throws up in the air the whole Brexit project, with major questions remaining unanswered about when Britain will exit the EU, how it will do so and even whether it still will.

Just 202 lawmakers backed May’s deal with 432 voting against her deal. The defeat dwarfed the previous 1924 record when then-Labor Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald lost a vote by 166, triggering the collapse of his government and a general election, which he lost.

After the vote, May complained “the vote tells us nothing” about what the Commons would agree to when it comes to Brexit.

Theresa May
Prime Minister Theresa May sits down in Parliament after the vote on May’s Brexit deal, in London, Britain, Jan. 15, 2019 in this image taken from video. VOA

Vote delayed in December

The defeat of May’s Brexit plan will give further momentum to a burgeoning campaign in the House of Commons, and among Remainers in the country for a second referendum, according to analysts. Remainers hope a replayed referendum would reverse the Brexit plebiscite of 2016, which Leavers narrowly won.

The vote on the deal, which was due in December but was delayed by the government when it became clear there was insufficient backing for it to pass, also leaves hanging in the balance May’s own future as prime minister. Her aides insisted at the end of a day of high political drama that she won’t resign.

“She is the person who has to deliver Brexit,” said British business minister Claire Perry, who said May doesn’t need to resign.

“There will be other attempts at this. There will be strenuous efforts to improve on the deal,” Perry said.

Earlier on Tuesday, May discussed post-defeat options and indicated she would plow on. Her officials say she will try to buy more time and return to Brussels to try to cajole EU leaders into a renegotiation.

But the sheer scale of the defeat throws into doubt whether even a reshaped Brexit Withdrawal Agreement would secure parliamentary approval in the future — that is, if the EU is prepared to reopen negotiations.

EU, May
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker holds a news conference at the European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium Oct. 18, 2018. VOA

“Her Plan B, more of the same, is hopelessly optimistic,” said commentator Isabel Oakeshott.

EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker canceled an event planned in Strasbourg, France, Wednesday so he can remain in Brussels for possible emergency talks with May. May’s RAF jet was put on standby, readied for her to travel to the Belgian capital.

Juncker tweeted when news of the historic vote broke: “I take note with regret of the outcome of the vote in the House of Commons this evening. I urge the UK to clarify its intentions as soon as possible. Time is almost up.”

EU president Donald Tusk reflected the frustration of many in Brussels, tweeting: “If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?”

As the vote neared, May’s aides made several last-ditch efforts to minimize the scale of the crushing defeat by offering amendments to the main motion on the deal that they hoped would peel away some of the Conservative rebels. But to their fury, Commons Speaker John Bercow, blocked their moves.

Labor’s Tulip Siddiq, who is pregnant, was pushed through the voting lobbies in a wheelchair after postponing a planned Caesarean section so she could vote against the Brexit deal.

Britain, May
Anti-Brexit demonstrators react after the results of the vote on British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal were announced in Parliament square in London, Jan. 15, 2019.VOA

Noisy crowd awaits word

While the drama played out in the House of Commons, outside the parliament, noisy, placard-waving crowds of Brexiters and Remainers mounted protests urging the draft plan be approved or cast aside. There was a hush among the protesters in the minutes before the result was announced.

May has until next Monday to offer a new proposal to the House of Commons, but it isn’t clear what she will propose. EU leaders have flatly rejected the possibility of renegotiations several times since the deal was concluded in November. But with Tuesday’s defeat, which followed five days of intense debate, British officials hope Brussels now may offer enough concessions to secure parliamentary backing on a replayed vote on an amended deal.

In the run-up to the vote, which the government was bracing itself to lose, May offered a series of carrots and sticks, pleas and warnings, to try to persuade unenthusiastic lawmakers to back her deal. To Brexiters, she warned it could result in Britain never exiting the EU. To Remainers, she cautioned it might lead to Britain leaving without a deal.

Britain, May
Leavers hold up signs next to pro-European demonstrators protesting opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Jan. 15, 2019. VOA

Final plea from May

Minutes before the vote, May told a packed and feisty House of Commons that they should “honor the democratic decision of the British people.” She said a vote against her deal would be a vote for “uncertainty, division and the very real risk of no deal.”

Corbyn countered that the “government’s own economic assessment clearly tells us it is a bad deal.” To accompanying jeers and cheers, he added, “This deal is the product of two years of botched negotiations in which the government spent more time arguing with itself than it did negotiating with the EU.

“We need to keep in mind that the vast majority of people in our country don’t think of themselves as Remainers or Leavers,” Corbyn said. “Whether they voted leave or remain two and a half years ago, they are concerned about their future. So, Mr. Speaker, I hope tonight that this House votes down this deal, and then we move to a general election.”