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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”