Overcoming the History of U.S.-Russia Diplomatic Expulsions

By Arik Burakovsky, Assistant Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program, The Fletcher School

Even as presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin engaged in high-level talks in Geneva last week, the day-to-day machinery of U.S.-Russia diplomacy is breaking down. Diplomatic operations have effectively ground to a standstill, and while the two leaders’ agreement to return ambassadors to their posts is a promising start, American and Russian policymakers must reverse diplomatic restrictions if they want “a stable, predictable relationship.”

Embassies and consulates are the lifeblood of international relations. Their job is to represent governments overseas, issue visas, protect citizens abroad, negotiate with foreign states, promote mutual understanding, develop economic relations, as well as facilitate cultural, educational, and scientific exchanges. They also harbor intelligence agents. The presence of spies operating under diplomatic cover is a mostly-quiet fact of international politics and generally tolerated by host countries.

However, diplomatic functions have majorly suffered in recent years as the United States and Russia have increasingly weaponized diplomatic expulsions. Once a tool reserved for especially egregious incidents of espionage, diplomatic evictions today are used more and more as expressions of geopolitical disapproval over alleged election interference, hacking, and assassinations. The tit-for-tat removals of diplomatic workers and closures of diplomatic facilities have come at a tremendous cost to bilateral relations.

The United States and Russia have long engaged in diplomatic expulsions and counter-expulsions. The measures are reminiscent of the Cold War, when the two superpowers regularly declared diplomats personae non gratae over charges of espionage. In 1986, the United States expelled 80 Soviet officials in response to a spy scandal at the United Nations, which led the Soviet Union to oust 10 American diplomats and order 260 Soviet employees of the U.S. embassy in Moscow to cease work.

The fall of the Iron Curtain curbed the practice but did not put an end to it. During a 1992 meeting in Washington, D.C., presidents George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin pledged to stop adversity between the  United States and Russia, agreeing to lift limitations on the numbers and movements of diplomatic personnel and open consulates in Vladivostok and Seattle. When the United States expelled a Russian envoy over the spying of CIA agent Aldrich Ames two years later, President Bill Clinton softened the blow by stressing the importance of strong ties with Russia and the continuation of its democratic reforms.

Nonetheless, as tensions grew between the United States and Russia over time, diplomatic dustups became more glaring. In 2001, President George W. Bush ordered 50 Russian diplomats out in response to a spy case involving FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen. The grudge match intensified after 2016, when President Barack Obama kicked out 35 Russian envoys and ordered the shutdown of two Russian recreational compounds as a riposte to alleged election meddling and harassment of American diplomats in Russia. The incident sparked outrage among Russian diplomats who saw it as a “robbery in broad daylight.”

Putin delayed retaliating, waiting to see what direction the incoming Trump administration might take. He eventually hit back after Congress passed a 2017 sanctions bill, seizing two U.S. diplomatic properties and ordering the U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia to reduce its workforce by 755 people, resulting in a significant visa processing slowdown and public diplomacy cuts. The following month, the White House closed Russian diplomatic annexes in New York City and Washington, D.C. as well as the consulate in San Francisco, an intrusion denounced by the Russian Foreign Ministry as an “outrageous, disgusting, and unprecedented” violation of international law.

In 2018, the United Kingdom accused the Russian military of poisoning double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England, by means of a Novichok nerve agent. In an act of solidarity, President Donald Trump expelled 60 Russian diplomats and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle as part of the “largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ever.” Putin, in turn, ousted 60 American officials and closed the U.S. consulate in Saint Petersburg. The State Department ultimately shut down its last two consulates in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok late last year to “ensure the safe and secure operation” of its embassy in Moscow, now the only U.S. diplomatic outpost in Russia, while the Russian consulates in New York City and Houston have remained operational. To make matters worse, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has severely obstructed travel between the two countries and moved most people-to-people exchanges online.

In a recent series of diplomatic restrictions in April this year, Biden announced another round of sanctions in retaliation to the SolarWinds data breach and alleged Russian tampering with the 2020 presidential election. The U.S. ousted 10 Russian diplomats, in response to which Russia expelled 10 American officials. The U.S. and Russian ambassadors, John Sullivan and Anatoly Antonov, returned home for months-long consultations. Consequently, the Kremlin designated the United States an “unfriendly” country, barring Russians from working at the American embassy in Moscow, which caused a suspension in visa issuing, citizen services, and grant programs. Barring a reversal, three-fourths of U.S. consular staff will lose their jobs next month, and the remaining diplomatic personnel will no longer be permitted to move freely across Russia.

The consular interruption has had ripple effects on companies, universities, think tanks, aid groups, and families with connections on both sides. While virtual engagement has provided a temporary band-aid to sustain limited diplomatic efforts and personal ties, social media and videoconferencing are no substitute for in-person interaction. Indeed, as Biden said after his recent meeting with Putin, it is “always better to meet face to face.”

While the White House should confront cyberattacks and information warfare, standing up to malicious acts by Russian intelligence operatives cannot come at the expense of routine diplomatic work. Weaponizing diplomatic expulsions undermines the consistent communication—not only via official emissaries and heads of state but also through experts, students, and societies—which allows the two great powers to maintain normal relations and progress on key matters of mutual concern, such as strategic stability and cybersecurity.

Relations between the United States and Russia have seemingly hit rock bottom—their current state has been described by officials as “worse than the Cold War.” The primary aim of the latest presidential summit was modest: to prevent further deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations. Resetting diplomatic restrictions would serve as a pragmatic step in the right direction by restoring the essential daily business of diplomacy. It is high time for the United States and Russia to end the cycle of diplomatic expulsions, reopen their shuttered consulates, and restaff their diplomatic missions. The peaceful future we aspire to achieve depends on our ability to maintain international dialogue.

This piece is republished from The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

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