Way back in 2009 I wrote a piece for DIPLOMAT about the lore and logic of expelling diplomats, usually for spying. The Internet has eaten it, but here are some extracts:

You know the story. Only too well. Your spouse yells at you for what you have done. Or for what you have not done. Or for what you have come to represent in the tumultuous relationship. Frustrated and cross, you yell at your children. And in their frustration and crossness, your children kick the cat.

So it is with foreign ministries. Taking heat from public opinion and the prime minister/president on an awkward foreign policy problem? Frustrated and/or cross? No local cat available? Find a foreign one! Kick (out) a diplomat!

It mentioned my role in the dramatic heaving out from the UK embassy in Moscow nine British diplomats in 1996, at that point the biggest such episode following the end of the Cold War. Here is a longer version. And see this:

In the mid-1990s, MI6 asked British diplomats in Moscow to organise a birthday party to provide cover for contact with a Russian official. The incident led to the expulsion of some of the diplomats concerned and the foreign office subsequently drew up new procedures to stiffen the diplomat-spy boundary further.

Anyway, the Obama Administration leaves office with a lively final thrust in the general direction of Moscow, expelling 35 Russian diplomats and shutting down some of the Russian government’s diplomatic bases in the USA. Here is the official White House explanation of why they did it:

The Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation are releasing a Joint Analysis Report (JAR) that contains declassified technical information on Russian civilian and military intelligence services’ malicious cyber activity, to better help network defenders in the United States and abroad identify, detect, and disrupt Russia’s global campaign of malicious cyber activities.

  • The JAR includes information on computers around the world that Russian intelligence services have co-opted without the knowledge of their owners in order to conduct their malicious activity in a way that makes it difficult to trace back to Russia. In some cases, the cybersecurity community was aware of this infrastructure, in other cases, this information is newly declassified by the U.S. government.

  • The report also includes data that enables cybersecurity firms and other network defenders to identify certain malware that the Russian intelligence services use.  Network defenders can use this information to identify and block Russian malware, forcing the Russian intelligence services to re-engineer their malware.

See also this detail, largely overlooked in all the noise about this decision:

  • Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev is designated today for having engaged in significant malicious cyber-enabled misappropriation of financial information for private financial gain.  Bogachev and his cybercriminal associates are responsible for the theft of over $100 million from U.S. financial institutions, Fortune 500 firms, universities, and government agencies.

The theft of over $100 million?? That’s real money. Imagine that with times being difficult in the economy, even the Russian GRU/SVR/FSB are struggling to find the cash to pay for all their Internet trolls and green men and other asymmetric warfare ploys. Simples. Pinch $100 million from some US banks and universities. That should tide us over for a while!

Incidentally, it’s also noteworthy that the Americans did not mention this time round the SVR (Russia’s equivalent of MI6), focusing instead on the GRU (military intelligence) and FSB (Russia’s FBI/MI5). Maybe the latter are in the lead in the Russian technical cyber warfare stakes, whereas the SVR are merely excellent spies who do it the hard honest way?

If you want a bit more US technical detail, see here.

In the face of this hard thump to the Russian diplomatic ribs, the world expected Vladimir Putin to respond by expelling a goodly batch of US diplomats. That’s what happens in these situations, right? Tit-for-tat expulsions, if only to cause the other side to think hard about costs and benefits:

Hmm. Boss, if we throw out them, they’ll throw out our guys – and that expensive operation we’ve carefully planned for months will crash. We really need the access to that Russian military information that we we’re poised to get for the first time! It could save us billions in weapons research! Is the gesture of throwing out some of these jerks really worth it?

Yet Putin didn’t retaliate. A masterstroke!

As the day progressed, however, it became clear that the Kremlin was preparing a more sophisticated reaction.

Various government spokespeople began to paint a picture of sanctions pushed personally by a bitter man. These were Barack Obama’s sanctions, not Donald Trump’s – not even US sanctions. They were the sanctions pushed in a final, futile burst of hatred by a lame-duck president. Even Secretary of State John Kerry was a “good man,” undermined by an emotional president, according to the Foreign Ministry’s Zakharova.

The surprise came about 4pm local time, via a statement was published on the Kremlin’s website. Russia would resist even the minimum expected diplomatic response of retaliatory expulsions, the statement read: “[Russia] will not resort to irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy but will plan our further steps to restore Russian-US relations based on the policies of the Trump Administration.”

Putin even invited the children of US diplomats to his New Year’s party.

With that statement, the Russian president marked a complete about-turn of his traditionally petulant diplomacy. Tactically, it was a triumph. Suddenly “Obama’s sanctions,” designed so as to be untouchable by a future Trump administration, no longer seemed so irreversible.

“It is a very smart move,” Lukyanov says. “It will humiliate Obama even more.”

Why did Putin not retaliate?

It’s of course possible that as part of its New Psychological Approach, Moscow chooses deliberately to work out what everyone expects then not do that.

Think about it. You cause the other side to think hard about its policy choices by acting ‘rationally’ and increasing the certainty of the costs of your response. But you can also act ‘irrationally’ by increasing uncertainty. That takes the negotiation to a deeper darker level. It raises the stakes in psychological terms and thereby tests the other side’s appetite for risk. Take this to its extreme, and you threaten chaos. And as we know, chaos is fair:

NB too that it’s also possible that the Americans have sent Moscow a clear private signal that further retaliation against US diplomats will lead to some especially unpleasant further consequences for Russian interests, and that Moscow has decided to wait and see what happens under D Trump. Hence Putin’s magnanimous ‘masterstroke’ is nothing but a good PR exercise to disguise a weak or holding position. Or something else we’ll never know about.

The point?

These diplomatic expulsions of different shapes and sizes are all about the underlying relationship, not the exciting revelations themselves.

Governments spy on each other and on other things. They tend to have a pretty good idea of where that activity is happening in their own country, and how to keep it within reasonable limits. That often means doing nothing but watching and waiting. If you know that (say) Boris G at the Russian Embassy is a top GRU agent and not the Political Counsellor’s lowly driver (ie he’s operating under deep cover), why throw him out? Better the devil you know: better simply to monitor what he’s up to and see what he’s trying to do.

Sometimes, though, things get a bit too much. You need to draw a line. Thus in one case I know the host government told HMG that a top official from its capital would be reporting at the FCO the following day to see the Permanent Under-Secretary on a highly sensitive matter. That meeting took place. The PUS was given a detailed dossier describing espionage activities by a UK diplomat back in that country, and told that if the diplomat left nicely within two weeks there would be nothing further said in public – and no UK retaliation.

A fair cop. Nice job. Done. Said diplomat leaves. Host government satisfied at scoring a direct but highly focused hit on those annoying Brits. But no-one embarrassed publicly. Bilateral relations not really strained.

In that 1996 Moscow case by contrast, the Russian side could not resist heavy publicly gloating about its skill in catching a fat haul of British spies. This compelled the UK side to retaliate, as by going public so crassly the Russians made the negotiation partly about British ‘face’. (See the bungled LEWD UK response to Ecuador re Assange for an example of our messing this up.). The overall result for Moscow was a classic messy ‘kitchen diplomacy’ tit-for-tat that diluted the impact of its powerplay.

This is why the Russians then looked long and hard about how best to manage such triumphs of counter-intelligence. And they did find a masterstroke. When you find a foreign diplomat up to sharp spying practices, don’t expel her/him. Just put her/him on TV instead, as an object of extended open ridicule. The diplomat’s position will be impossible and her/his government will quietly bring her/him home. You get to have fun at their expense. The spy leaves in abject humiliation. They have no normal grounds for retaliating against your spies, and it’s not (yet) their style to use TV in this way against you. You look strong. They look weak. Win-win-win!

Hence the Russian response to the infamous MI6 rock episode. And the hapless be-wigg’d US diplomat Ryan Fogle.


In the time-honoured game of diplomatic spy expulsions, the way you do it is as important in getting the best result for you as what you do. That applies to the ‘retaliation’, if any, as well.

In this latest massive case, the Obama Administration definitely scored a hit on the Russian intelligence effort in the USA. But the way they did it is odd. If these Russian diplomats and/or Russian geeks elsewhere in the USA really were meddling in the US elections so brazenly and to such poisonous effect, surely they should have been heaved out much earlier? Would all this be going on if Hillary had won? Isn’t the real agenda here ‘framing’ D Trump’s election as a priori illegitimate to try to start rebuilding the Democrat position after all its horrible losses?

In other words, it all comes across as somehow unconvincing if not cynical, and this in turn opens the way for Putin to present himself as smarter and wiser. No ‘kitchen diplomacy’ for Moscow. That’s the sort of grubby second-rate thing lame-duck Obama does!

Plus, of course, V Putin of all people knows that Russia’s diplomat-spies are more like mice than cats: you chase them away, but they always quietly move back in to your house.