EU Member States expel >120 Russian diplomats in an apparent coordinated effort to reduce Russian intelligence presence in the EU

A week after Poland announced it expels 45 Russian diplomats, the foreign ministries of Belgium, the Czech Republic, Ireland and the Netherlands announced on March 29, 2022 that they too will expel Russian diplomats. A day later, Slovakia followed up by announcing expulsion of another 35 Russian diplomats.

The Czech Republic, who in 2021 called on EU and NATO to expel Russian diplomats in solidarity against Moscow, expels one diplomat from the embassy in Prague on a 72-hour notice. In a tweet the Czech ministry of foreign affairs stated that “Together with our Allies, we are reducing the Russian intelligence presence in the EU.”

Belgium expels 21 diplomats from the embassy in Brussels and consulate in Antwerp. Minister Sophie Wilmès stated the measure is taken to protect national security and is unrelated to the war in Ukraine. “Diplomatic channels with Russia remain open, the Russian embassy can continue to operate and we continue to advocate dialogue”, Wilmès said.

The Netherlands expels 17 diplomats from the embassy in The Hague. According to minister Wopke Hoekstra they are secretly active as intelligence officers. Hoekstra bases this on information from Dutch intelligence & security services AIVD and MIVD. The embassy in the Hague has 75 registered diplomats, of which 58 will remain. Hoekstra says the decision was taken with “a number of like-minded countries”, based on grounds of national security. Like his Belgian colleague, Hoekstra adds he wants diplomatic channels with Russia to remain open.

Ireland expels 4 “senior officials” from the embassy in Dublin for engaging in activities “not […] in accordance with international standards of diplomatic behavior”. They were suspected of being undercover military officers of the GRU and were already on the radar of Garda Síochána, the Irish national police and security service, for some time.

Furthermore, Slovakia announced it will “reduce the staff of the Russian embassy in Bratislava by 35”, after already having expelled three diplomats earlier in March, and charging two people with espionage for Russia. The official statement of the Slovakian government does not mention specifics beyond the statement that “we regret to note that […] the Russian diplomatic mission has not shown any interest in operating correctly on our territory.”

Dutch intelligence scholar Ben de Jong points out in NRC Handelsblad that the absence of France and Germany limits the strength of the political signal that is sent to Russia. Based on its own sources, NRC writes that the expelled diplomats in the Netherlands “presumably” were active in collecting secret information about weapon deliveries to Ukraine, political and military decision-making in NATO and the EU, and discussion about new sanctions.

De Jong also points out that besides the use of diplomatic covers and illegals, Russian secret services likely have representatives in companies such as Gazprom and Aeroflot who are not affected by the expulsion and can continue their operations, albeit without the protection of a diplomatic cover. Another intelligence scholar points out that new diplomats will eventually be registered.

The Belgian and Dutch ministers cite national security as ground for the expulsion rather than the expulsions being a sanction over the war in Ukraine. The apparent coordinated effort is however seen as a joint political statement to the Russian government.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told AFP that “responses will be provided on the basis of the principle of reciprocity.”