In the span of a day, more than 100 Russian diplomats across North America and Europe were told that they’d be getting the boot—a mass expulsion coordinated by 23 countries in response to this month’s nerve-agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury. The move was a stunning show of international solidarity with the United Kingdom, which itself expelled 23 Russian diplomats last week, and was heralded by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as the “largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ever.”
The largest of these expulsions came from the Trump administration, which despite its initial reluctance to hold Moscow accountable for the attack, has given 60 Russian diplomats just one week to leave the United States—the largest such expulsion in U.S. history. It also announced the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle, a decision the White House attributed to its proximity to both aviation company Boeing and U.S. submarine bases.
The coordinated mass expulsion of diplomats is no small feat, showcasing a degree of Western solidarity not seen since the imposition of sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014. No doubt it was seen this way by Moscow, which dubbed the move a “provocative gesture of solidarity with London.” Still, such expulsions are highly symbolic. Historically, it has been almost impossible to know exactly what impact, if any, these shake-ups have on Russia’s intelligence capability. They can also be self-defeating. Russia, which maintains that it had nothing to do with the Salisbury poisoning, has already pledged to respond to reprisals in kind, just as it did when it expelled 23 British diplomats last week. Though Moscow has yet to announce retaliations, its embassy in Washington has begun crowdsourcing which U.S. consulate it will shutter in response (as of this writing, the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg is leading).