Summary: Moscow’s intelligence capabilities on NATO will almost certainly decline as a result of recent diplomatic expulsions and internal arrests. Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly blamed the shortcomings of Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine on the Federal Security Service (FSB). Expulsion of over 100 Moscow officials from Russian embassies in Europe occurred in March, with many nations alleging espionage.
Background: Moscow previously faced issues with expelled diplomats from foreign nations. In 2022, various countries expelled 377 Moscow diplomats, compared to 64 in 2021 and 14 in 2020. Recently, Putin’s public treatment of his advisors remains poor. A video filmed on 21 February shows Putin interrupting his head of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) during a security council meeting and telling his advisor to, “speak directly!” On 24 February, Moscow escalated its military action concerning Ukraine. In response, European nations placed economic and diplomatic sanctions on Moscow, which included an ousting of many Russian diplomats.
Putin’s Staff Purge: Moscow’s aggressive counterintelligence efforts shows Putin will likely attempt to shift the burden of the Ukraine conflict onto the FSB. On 11 March, Moscow placed Colonel-General Sergei Beseda under house arrest. Beseda formerly served as the head of the FSB’s Fifth Service; the service responsible for providing Moscow with intelligence related to Ukraine. On 8 April, Beseda went to prison along with 150 other FSB officers in the following days. Moscow alleges that conspirators inside FSB embezzled $5 billion to form an intelligence network in Ukraine. Many targeted FSB officials took part in intelligence and counterintelligence activities in Ukraine. Putin will probably use the arrests as a tool to shift the blame and restore his reputation and legitimacy as a leader.
Europe’s Response: The expulsion of alleged Moscow intelligence officials from nine European countries will almost certainly reduce Moscow’s intelligence collection on NATO members. Belgium, the host of the NATO headquarters in Brussels, represents one of the nine nations. Brussels’ ousting of the officials probably highly impacted Moscow intelligence due to the lack of access to the NATO headquarters. Without a strong network of officials in embassies around Europe, Moscow will likely have to rely on human intelligence (HUMINT) collection via non-official covers (NOC). Using a NOC presents more risk and costs than embedding an agent with an official cover.
Outlook and Implications: Moscow’s internal arrests and Europe removing many Russian officials from their diplomatic positions will almost certainly harm Moscow and its intelligence collection capabilities. With Moscow’s claim of a traitorous conspiracy involving 150 FSB officials, Moscow’s intelligence officials will likely operate under more skepticism. The expected internal distrust in Moscow’s FSB will likely make rebuilding an intelligence network in Europe more difficult. In the coming years, Moscow will probably rely more on NOC agents to collect HUMINT in Europe.