When Diplomats and Spies Must Go

Expelling Russians, Then and Now

A plane carrying expelled Russian diplomats and their families taking off at Stansted Airport, London, March 2018 Chris Radburn / Reuters

The poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter on British territory on March 4—an act that could only have been carried out by Moscow—has set off a chain of diplomatic expulsions and counter-expulsions recalling the Cold War. On March 26, in retaliation for the assassination attempt, the United Kingdom expelled 23 Russian officials, the United States expelled 60, and 19 other countries, mostly NATO allies, expelled nearly another 50. Within days, the Russians struck back, expelling 60 American and 50 British diplomats, along with other Western diplomats in numbers equal to the number of Russians expelled. It may not be over.

Russia's act of aggression in the United Kingdom called for a sharp response, so the British should be commended for insisting on allied solidarity, and the Trump administration and other Western governments should be commended for showing it. The coordinated round of expulsions represents a big step in the ongoing effort to challenge Russia for its provocations. But will it work? Is it enough? 

The short answer is: not yet. Diplomatic expulsions are a standard if extreme way of showing outrage. But tactically speaking, they have mixed results. Experience suggests that expulsions work best as part of a broad strategy to deter, pressure, and ultimately change an adversary's behavior. Without that strategic context, the Trump administration's actions risk being interpreted as a symbolic slap on the wrist intended merely to manage a news cycle.


In diplomatic parlance, when an unwanted foreigner with diplomatic status is expelled, he is declared persona non grata, or PNG’d. Expulsions usually involve going after actual diplomats and intelligence officers under diplomatic cover, and because expulsions are usually met in kind by the target country, it's hard to say which side comes out on top. In the case of the United States and Russia, mutual expulsions of spies may work to America's advantage. That's because Russian spies on U.S. soil, operating as they do in a more open society, may have more running room, despite

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