News World The fascinating and ridiculous history of Russia-US espionage

The fascinating and ridiculous history of Russia-US espionage

Theresa May
Theresa May is leading the charge against Russia. Photo: Getty
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Russia has expelled 150 Western diplomats, including 10 from Australia and 60 from the US, as part of a tit-for-tat diplomatic bust-up that began when double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were affected by nerve gas on British soil.

The increasingly rogue state – now the third-most economically sanctioned in the world – says it will also close the United States Consulate in St Petersburg.

In this case, UK Prime Minister Teresa May has led an international campaign to punish Russia for deploying a deadly nerve agent on British soil.

In effect, Russia stands accused of committing a chemical weapons attack on a foreign power.

Russia’s culpability hasn’t been formally proven, and some say that Teresa May has jumped the gun. But Britain’s allies, including Australia, insist that Russia has form, and are increasingly unhappy with the nation’s military meddling in the Ukraine and Syria, and its cyberattacks on the democratic process in Europe and the USA.

In response, they expelled a total of 150 Russian diplomats – and Russia has responded by expelling exactly the same number.

In the heady rush of events, it’s almost been forgotten that Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats in response to a series of cyber-attacks during the 2016 election.

Seven months later, Vladimir Putin, incensed by economic sanctions,  expelled 755 American diplomatic workers from Russia.

That ruckus was one chapter in an evolving mess of uncertainty.

But not all diplomatic expulsions are created equal in terms of what they mean for the stability – present and future – of world politics. Sometimes it plays out like a comedy.

A fascinating and ridiculous history of espionage

In 2011, Ireland ordered a Russian diplomat to be expelled because Russia’s spymasters had used stolen Irish identities as cover for snoops operating in the United States.

The FBI had broken up a mostly bumbling Russian spy ring of 11 men and women posing as American civilians, some of them using Irish passports and going by names such as Foley and Murphy.

An even bigger farce occurred in 1986, when US President Ronald Reagan was scaring the hell out of hard-line Soviets with his Star Wars missile defence project, he ordered the expulsion of 25 Soviet diplomats assigned to the United Nations HQ in New York City.

When it became apparent that Reagan lacked the authority to enforce the expulsions against diplomats, he countered by claiming the diplomats were spies.

The Soviets responded by kicking out five US diplomats, claiming that they were spies.

This was the first time, according to the L.A. Times, there had been “a mass expulsion of Americans from Moscow in the 53-year history of U.S.-Soviet relations.”

The tit-for-tat was just getting started.

Reagan’s administration ordered 55 Soviet diplomats and workers out of the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., and the consulate general in San Francisco.

The Soviet Union expelled another five Americans from the U.S. embassy in Moscow, also prohibiting 260 Soviet nationals employed as household staff from working at the embassy.

This meant there was no one to wash the dishes, cook the meals, fix the cars or pour the drinks at parties. US Marines were immediately roped in to help out.

Overall it was an embarrassing time for US, a mess of its own making.

But it also came when the Cold War that for 40 years threatened to blow up the world and effectively held people living behind the Iron Curtain as prisoners was winding down.

At least in the Cold War, there were communication channels open between the US (or UK) and Russia. Protective fail-safe procedures were in play then, too – a far cry from now.

La Trobe University’s Dr Robert Horvath is a specialist on Russian politics, civil society and international human rights and his latest book, Putin’s ‘Preventive Counter-Revolution‘, is a study of the reforms and repression that transformed Russian politics during Vladimir Putin’s second term as president.

vladimir putin
Putin has served as President of the Russian Federation since 2012, also holding the position from 2000 to 2008. Photo: AAP

He told The New Daily there were two obvious differences between the round of expulsions happening now and those that occurred in 1986.

“First, the Reagan administration was reacting to normal espionage activity, not the use of chemical weapons that put civilian lives at risk,” he said.

“And second, the 1986 expulsions (happened during) an improving international environment.’”

One month after the diplomatic blow-up, he said, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev “would make a telephone call to Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Laureate and the USSR’s most famous political prisoner… and ask him to return to Moscow to resume his ‘patriotic work.'”

This was the beginning of the big thaw.

“From there the world began moving to democratisation,” he said.

Where the world is moving now doesn’t seem so rosy.

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