A Bunch of Russian Spies Are About to Get Their Butts Kicked Out of Europe

Massively bloated Russian diplomatic missions – believed to be a front for spying – will be bled by European countries, intelligence sources tell VICE World News.
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PHOTO: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Poland’s decision to expel 45 Russian diplomats believed to be spies is just the start of a major effort to limit Russia’s overstaffed diplomatic missions in Europe, which NATO counterintelligence officials tell VICE World News are covers for spying.

It’s commonplace for countries to use diplomatic cover at embassies for intelligence officers but Russia has been long accused of overstaffing its embassies beyond a normal level for comparably sized countries, said one official.

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Three officials from NATO member countries in the EU declined to speak on the record or provide exact numbers but described the Russian embassies in Paris, Brussels, Vienna and Prague as, in the words of one official, “overstuffed like a goose, but with spies.”

“All across Europe we find Russian embassies staffed far in excess of the diplomatic requirements,” said a senior NATO counterintelligence official based in Brussels. “Of course there’s usually an intelligence element to most embassies, but the sheer number of Russians assigned around Europe is a brazen attempt to abuse diplomatic immunity.”

Poland on Wednesday quickly accepted a recommendation by its security services that 45 likely intelligence officers had been identified and should be expelled, and immediately kicked them out of the country. This came a week after two suspected spies working at the embassy in Warsaw were expelled and a Polish government official arrested. 

On Thursday, Sergey Andreev, the Russian ambassador to Poland, said that the embassy’s bank accounts had been frozen by Polish authorities for “supporting terrorism.” A Polish official refused to confirm specifics to Reuters, but said that the country was in the process of complying with sanctions and was targeting Russian-linked bank accounts. 

“The two were caught running an agent with access to Polish government information and expelled,” said the official. “On [March 2] Bulgaria broke up a ring and expelled a couple of people and last week they made ten more [persona non grata].”

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“In the past [expulsions] have been a tool used when there’s been an incident such as earlier this month in Bulgaria and Slovakia, where Russian spies were caught operating and expelled,” said the NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But starting last week and going forward, there will be a much more aggressive attempt to prevent incidents and the best way to do that is to send the spies home.”

On March 18, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia told a total of 20 Russian diplomats to leave within days as part of the crackdown. All three officials said that previous political concerns of hurting ties with Russia by kicking out intelligence officers that had not been directly caught engaging in espionage have been superseded by the invasion of Ukraine.

Last week, Slovakia expelled three Russian diplomats after disrupting an intelligence operation caught on video by counterintelligence officers. 

Russia has been conducting aggressive intelligence operations in Europe for over a decade, all the officials said. These have resulted in the murder of Chechen dissidents, nerve agent attacks on an arms dealer, and covert bombing operations of weapons depots in Czechia and Bulgaria. 

“There had been some reluctance across the EU to preempt [Russian] operations, there were only responses to incidents, and that’s changing in light of Ukraine,” said the counterintelligence official. 

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“Part of the reluctance by any intelligence service is about disrupting people you know are spies and are watching,” said the official. “That needs to be balanced with security and the political climate. And the current climate on both is about throwing out Russians.”

For its part, the Russian Foreign Ministry essentially threatened Poland over the embassy expulsion, releasing a statement that said, “Russia will not leave this hostile attack without a response, which will make Polish provocateurs think and will hurt them.”

On Wednesday evening, Russian officials delivered a list of American diplomats ordered deported from US diplomatic facilities in Russia but no details have yet been released. The US expelled 12 Russian diplomats at the United Nations in late February for alleged spying and one US counterintelligence official –  who refused to speak on the record – told VICE World News that the FBI, which is responsible for tracking espionage in the US, has increased the robustness of its counterespionage efforts in the past two years, shifting assets away from terrorism. 

“The FBI sees this as a return to its traditional responsibilities, an area they’re pretty competent,” said the official.

On Thursday the Washington Post reported that social media ads apparently run by the FBI soliciting Russian diplomats to work for American counterintelligence were microtargeting the area directly around the Russian Embassy in Washington.