Escalation in the spy game
In the highly competitive and globalized atmosphere of international politics, states routinely use human intelligence, as well as technology, to gather information about each other. Although data collection methods and techniques have diversified with the advance of technology, traditional methods of sending spies abroad or recruiting high placed foreign nationals to obtain information are still very much used by most countries.
While the gathering of intelligence is not limited to enemies, but includes allies, as it had been revealed between 2013 and 2015 that the United States and Germany were spying on each other, intelligence operations create more of a reaction when they go beyond information gathering and start targeting individuals working in the field. The most recent assassination attempt of a former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, who has been living in the United Kingdom, has generated a Cold War style tit-for-tat.
On March 4, 2018, Mr. Skripal and his daughter were subjected to a nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, England. The attack immediately grew into a diplomatic crisis between Russia and the U.K., as it was revealed that it was conducted with the use of a Russian-developed chemical agent, known as “Novichok,” and Russia’s denial was not convincing for U.K. authorities.
When another Russian intelligence officer and defector, Alexander Litvinenko, was murdered in the U.K. in November 2006 by Russian agents, following a preliminary investigation, the U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, who was home secretary at the time, had to take a tough stance. As contradictory statements coming from Moscow were not able to dispel naturally increased suspicions, Prime Minister May announced several measures against Russia, ranging from pronouncing 23 Russian diplomats as “undeclared intelligence officers,” and thus persona non-grata, to revoking all high-level bilateral contacts and increasing checks on customs, etc.
The U.S., NATO, the EU and many countries have stood with the U.K. in condemning Russia. Several EU countries, in addition to Canada, Ukraine, Australia, Norway, Albania and Macedonia, have expelled Russian diplomats in response to Russia’s alleged use of the nerve-agent. Even U.S. President Donald Trump, who normally enjoys a good personal rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin, took forceful action in solidarity with the U.K. and ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats.
Such a collective response is not simply a reaction to Russia’s increasingly flagrant use of illegal means to operate in Western countries, but also to its open disregard for established international norms since its annexation of Crimea in 2014. It is also a response from NATO countries to what have been considered aggressive Russian policies on its southern and eastern flanks in the last couple of years.
It has been known that Russian President Vladimir Putin occasionally tests solidarity within the Western bloc through aggressive moves near its European borders. Thus, the tension between the West and Russia has steadily been growing since Crimea. At a time when Europe’s reliance on the U.S. security umbrella is being questioned amid the uncertainty created for European security by Brexit negotiations, showing solidarity in response to such an attack was important.
There is no doubt Russia will retaliate shortly and probably expel the same number of Western diplomats from Russia. What will follow is less certain. Time will show whether the Western countries and/or Russia will move to escalate the situation and whether the West can sustain its solidarity in a prolonged tit-for-tat exchange. Turkey, in the meantime, is playing hide-and-seek between Russia and its Western alliance partners.