West Boots Out Hundreds of Russian Diplomats in Wake of Ukraine Invasion and War Crimes

But the U.S. and other countries are stopping short of kicking out Moscow’s ambassadors.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , an intern at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Russian government via teleconference in Moscow on March 10. Mikhail Klimentyev/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

As reports filter out of Ukraine about gruesome atrocities committed by Russia’s military, Western countries are responding by expelling hundreds of Russian diplomats, many of whom use diplomatic cover to operate as spies.

At least 394 officials at Russia’s diplomatic missions have been expelled by Western countries since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February, according to a Foreign Policy analysis of statements and data released by dozens of ministries of foreign affairs across Europe and North America. Western governments have accused many of the Russian diplomats they ordered to leave of being spies operating under diplomatic cover.

The diplomatic freeze by Washington and European allies represents one of the largest collective expulsions of foreign officials from a single country in modern history, according to current and former veteran diplomats. It is rivaled only by a wave of expulsions of Russian diplomats from the West in 2018, after Russia poisoned a former double agent on British soil using a chemical weapon.

As reports filter out of Ukraine about gruesome atrocities committed by Russia’s military, Western countries are responding by expelling hundreds of Russian diplomats, many of whom use diplomatic cover to operate as spies.

At least 394 officials at Russia’s diplomatic missions have been expelled by Western countries since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February, according to a Foreign Policy analysis of statements and data released by dozens of ministries of foreign affairs across Europe and North America. Western governments have accused many of the Russian diplomats they ordered to leave of being spies operating under diplomatic cover.

The diplomatic freeze by Washington and European allies represents one of the largest collective expulsions of foreign officials from a single country in modern history, according to current and former veteran diplomats. It is rivaled only by a wave of expulsions of Russian diplomats from the West in 2018, after Russia poisoned a former double agent on British soil using a chemical weapon.

The mass expulsion is part of a broader campaign by the United States and European countries to ramp up pressure on Moscow diplomatically and economically in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, and amid gruesome new revelations about war crimes committed by Russia’s military against civilians in Bucha and other Ukrainian towns it has occupied.

“It’s an important continued signal of very grave concerns and disbelief at the Russian barbarism in Ukraine,” said Rose Gottemoeller, a scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former deputy secretary-general of NATO. “Governments have limited instruments or tools to express that really sharp concern; this is one way to go about it.”

Some politicians and lawmakers in Western countries have called for their governments to go as far as to expel Russia’s ambassadors, not just lower-level embassy officials or suspected spies. Lithuania, a NATO and European Union member, announced it was expelling Russia’s ambassador on Monday. But most countries have not taken that step, which would cut off a channel of communication with Moscow and could prompt the Kremlin to respond in kind by booting out Western diplomats.

Russia has repeatedly condemned the expulsion of its diplomats from Western countries, reciprocating with expulsions of its own.

For now, at least, the Russian ambassador in Washington is staying in place. “There is no intent by the U.S. government to expel [Russian Ambassador Anatoly] Antonov from the United States,” a State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy. “The United States remains committed to open channels of communication with the Russian government, both to advance U.S. interests and to reduce the risk of miscalculation between our countries.”

The wave of expulsions also shed a rare public spotlight on the wide extent of suspected Russian intelligence operations in the West, operating under the guise of diplomatic cover.

“It’s a well-known fact that there is an intelligence component in Russian diplomatic missions,” said Mikko Hautala, Finland’s ambassador to the United States, who also previously served as ambassador to Russia before coming to Washington in 2020.

Germany expelled 40 Russian diplomats on suspicion of spying—out of a total of 104 Russian officials accredited to work in the country, as Reuters reported. A top counterintelligence official for Sweden’s security services, Daniel Stenling, said in an interview last year that 1 in 3 Russian diplomats in Sweden is likely a spy.

“Some of these Russian embassies in some European capitals were exceedingly large, and it wasn’t because they were strengthening bilateral relations,” said Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund think tank. “It’s clear most of these so-called diplomats are actually intelligence operatives.”

At least 24 of NATO’s 30 members joined in expelling Russian diplomats—including some of its largest members such as France and Italy and some of its smallest members such as Luxembourg, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. European countries that aren’t in NATO, including Ireland, Austria, and Sweden, have also expelled diplomats, alongside the EU, which announced it was kicking out 19 diplomats from the Russian mission to the bloc in Brussels.

Expelling foreign dignitaries from embassies isn’t a new phenomenon in diplomacy. The measure is permitted by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, granting receiving states the right to remove the head of a mission or any member of its diplomatic staff—deeming them persona non grata—without having to explain why. It’s used as a tool to register protests during disputes between countries or to kick out embassy officials suspected of spying.

“In our case, Finland has a long history of expelling diplomats who are being observed as conducting illegal intelligence activities,” Hautala said.

In February, during the first days of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, the United States announced it was kicking out a dozen Russian “intelligence operatives” who operated out of Russia’s mission at the United Nations in New York, an act that had been “in development for several months,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the U.N. said in a statement.

It comes as no surprise that Russian diplomats are engaging in espionage, said Gordon Duguid, a former senior U.S. diplomat and lecturer on public diplomacy at George Washington University. “What it does mean is that we are going to make it harder for you to gather intelligence,” he said.

The expulsions were a way for Western countries to directly show Russia that it should change course in Ukraine, he said. The risk is that channels of communication are progressively closed.

“[Y]ou’re pretty much breaking off diplomatic relations,” Duguid said. “[T]here’s fewer conversations going on, and the possibilities of misunderstanding increases.”

While NATO allies have put up a united front against Russia, with the latest batch of sanctions on Russian officials announced Wednesday, there have been a few notable holdouts who have yet to expel Russian diplomats since the beginning of the invasion.

Canada is one, at least so far. “If we exclude Russian diplomats, which we are considering, like other countries and our allies are doing, we know that will probably mean we lose diplomats in Moscow,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Wednesday.

In Washington, some current and former U.S. officials argue that President Joe Biden should keep Russia’s ambassador in place even if relations between the two countries deteriorate further. That would help ensure the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan, can stay in his post to maintain contacts with the Kremlin and monitor the cases of American citizens such as Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan, and Trevor Reed who are detained in Russia on spurious charges.

“The presence of John Sullivan in Moscow is vital right now, because we don’t have many lines of communication open with the Russian government,” Gottemoeller said. “He is keeping an ear to the ground on behalf of the U.S. government to try to understand exactly what the thinking of the Kremlin is. That is the purpose of an embassy.”

Moscow has already dramatically cut the number of diplomats and local employees allowed at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia, leaving only a skeleton crew in place.

Other NATO and EU countries aren’t kicking out Russian diplomats for other reasons. Turkey, for instance, has avoided expelling Russian diplomats as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to position himself as a peace mediator between Russia and Ukraine. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, viewed as one of the EU leaders friendliest with Putin, has also notably not announced any expulsion of Russian diplomats.

Still other countries have not announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats simply because there aren’t enough left in their country to kick out, as in the case of the United Kingdom.

“[They] basically don’t have anyone left in London,” a British official told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity. Following the assassination attempt on British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018, the Russian Embassy in London was cleared of alleged Russian intelligence operatives, setting the precedent for the most recent wave of diplomatic expulsions.

When asked about calls for the U.K. to expel Russia’s ambassador, which so far has not been up for consideration, the British official said: “There’s nothing that’s off the table.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Mary Yang is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

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