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Do Large-Scale Diplomatic Expulsions Accomplish Anything?


Yesterday the Kremlin announced that it will expel 60 U.S. diplomats. It will also close the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. This was in response to similar moves by the U.S. to expel Russian officials. And this dispute started when a former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned by a nerve agent in England. British authorities say the Russian government had something to do with that.


And, as we've reported, in a coordinated response, more than 20 countries around the world have expelled about 150 Russian officials. The United States alone ordered 60 Russian officials out from Washington, also from New York and from the now-closing Russian consulate in the city of Seattle.

KING: What is the practical cost of these expulsions? In particular, what do they mean for intelligence gathering? Asha Rangappa is a former FBI special agent. She's now a senior lecturer at Yale's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Good morning, Asha.

ASHA RANGAPPA: Good morning.

KING: OK. So Asha, do we assume that some of the people being expelled on both sides are involved in intelligence gathering?

RANGAPPA: It's very likely. So when other countries send spies to the U.S. and when we send our spies to other countries, typically or often, they are under diplomatic cover. And when you have a situation like this where you are expelling diplomats as kind of a punishment, you're typically finding those people and getting them out. And it's actually a pretty difficult process, and...

KING: To identify who's in intelligence?

RANGAPPA: No, to declare someone. It's called declaring them persona non grata. The process is actually called PNG-ing. It's a verb, (laughter), to PNG someone. And, you know, typically countries do this for one or two when there's something serious. So kicking out 60 is quite extraordinary.

KING: Well, President Putin ordered last year that the U.S. reduce its embassy staff by 755 people. Most of those people were doing administrative and logistical work. But now we have these 60. What does that mean for the U.S. keeping a functioning intelligence presence in Russia?

RANGAPPA: Well, you know, for our CIA, they are there collecting secrets, and they have a pretty tough time over there. The counterintelligence, which is the service that is monitoring the spies and trying to stop the spies, you know, they monitor the CIA very closely, make it very difficult for them to operate. In the United States, we also have counterintelligence. The FBI has the primary jurisdiction to conduct counterintelligence in the U.S., but we are a security state. We don't have close to half a million people, you know, associated with our intelligence service watching everybody and other spies. So while we do monitor Russia, we also monitor a lot of other countries. So it's a little bit easier for them to operate here than vice versa.

KING: But in an era when espionage and propaganda and counterintelligence are being done very effectively by way of the Internet, do real people actually matter?

RANGAPPA: I think for a lot of operations you still need human sources.


RANGAPPA: It's true. So you can look at, say, some of the things that Mueller is investigating with the Facebook ads, for example, a lot of that could have been done remotely. But if you read that indictment, Russia still used people on the ground, perhaps unwittingly, but they had to recruit people to kind of execute their efforts. So I don't think they can do everything through computers alone. Spycraft is ultimately a human-based kind of profession...

KING: Endeavor.

RANGAPPA: ...So they still need to get people on the ground to work for them.

KING: In the last couple seconds we have left, hasn't the principle for a long time been do not let Russia drift too far from the U.S.? Do you think we are risking that principle here?

RANGAPPA: I don't think so. I think that this particular instance, that in London, the nerve agent attack, required a very strong response. And I think we needed to take this step.

KING: Asha Rangappa is a former FBI counterespionage specialist. She's currently a senior lecturer at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Thank you, Asha.

RANGAPPA: Thank you. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.