U.S. Sanctions Should Inspire Europe to Kick Out Russian Embassy Spies

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, Russia, on May 2. Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin/Reuters

In response to the new American sanctions put on Russia for aggressively interfering in the recent U.S. presidential elections, Moscow announced it will retaliate by forcing Washington to cut down diplomats and staffers working for the U.S. mission and consulates inside Russia. In the largest move of this kind since the heat of the Cold War in 1986, American diplomacy will have to take home or let go of 755 people. The principal argument, voiced by Russia's President Vladimir Putin, is that Moscow is seeking "parity," meaning the numbers of diplomatic and technical staff employed by the U.S. working in Russia shall be equal to Russian staffers working on American soil. No matter how President Trump responds to the deterioration of this relationship, this move opens a golden opportunity to America's European allies.

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For decades, European countries have struggled with disproportionately large Russian missions in their capitals. While nobody is calling for ceasing diplomatic relations with Moscow (meaning closing whole embassies and consulates), Putin's Russia is now in a full-scale subversive offensive against Western countries. It is trying to interfere in sovereign elections such as it attempted in the U.S. and France; it would like to overthrow governments such as it reportedly tried in Montenegro; the Baltic states fear being destabilized; and Russia wants to disrupt democracies by producing massive amounts of disinformation or supporting extremists. Even outside its military occupations in territories of three neighboring countries, the Kremlin today poses one of the most urgent threats to Western democracies.

While Western states need to keep legitimate diplomatic, economic, consular or cultural relations with Russia, the Kremlin's embassies and consulates often serve as nests of hostile intelligence activities. Oftentimes the Kremlin's envoys don't declare their intelligence personnel to the hosting country, which is seen as a hostile act. In Sweden, as much as one-third of the official Russian diplomatic mission is assessed to perform spooky duties, and the country's intelligence agency has publicly named Russian spies as the number one intelligence threat.

The Golden Opportunity Is Here

While concerned European capitals understand the threat of hostile Russian intelligence activities, their hands are often tied by what is in diplomatic jargon called "reciprocity." Despite the fact that there are often much larger Russian diplomatic missions in the hosting country than the European state has in Russia, Moscow deters individual European countries from pushing back by simply saying—if you expel 10 of our people, we will send home 10 of yours. That practically means that if the Kremlin has 140 diplomatic and administrative staffers accredited in the Czech Republic, while Czech diplomacy employs only 65 people in Russia, Prague cannot push hard without losing its ability to perform legitimate basic tasks inside Russia.

If Putin is calling for "parity," it would mean to crop the number to an even count—for example 65 to 65, right? Consider Finland, population 5.5 million, and whose number of diplomats in Russia is half of what Moscow has on the Finnish soil. We know it will not happen, as the 10.6-million-strong Czech Republic doesn't have the diplomatic and political strength to face down Russia on its own.

Here's the beauty of being in a like-minded alliance. Other European countries, mostly in the Eastern flank of NATO, all struggle with the long-term pain of having to tolerate strongholds of potential Russian espionage on their soil. They will deploy capable counterintelligence agencies, but they are not going to engage in a massive tit-for-tat with the prospect of literally losing their embassy in Russia.

But after Putin's circles decided on such a giant cut of approximately two-thirds of U.S. personnel in Russia, it means the gloves are off. Right now, foreign ministers of allied countries struggling with the same issue should be calling each other to arrange a joint action. If at least five or seven NATO countries would like to use this window of opportunity, demanding jointly the "parity" principle in diplomatic numbers, it would be hard for Moscow to punish each of them separately. Putin would be diplomatically pushed to the corner where they would have to reduce some of their European missions. Whatever the final number would be, European allies can only benefit from being bold and standing up for their American friends.

In addition to practical benefits such as disrupting some of the Kremlin's spy networks in their own countries, there is a major political upside of this collective move. President Trump has been struggling to find a pace with America's allies threatened by Russia, and now Russia is striking directly at him. While smaller European countries are thankful for the American security umbrella, they have little to deliver back to Washington. This move, even if not as strategically important as having American troops and tanks in the Baltic countries, would be a clear gesture from Eastern European capitals to President Trump: "We are in this with you."

Jakub Janda is the head of the Kremlin Watch Program and deputy director at the Prague-based European Values think tank. Since 2016, he has also served as an adviser to the Czech Interior Ministry on the influence of foreign powers. Any opinions presented are his personal positions.