Skripal on the Hudson? Expelled Russian diplomats were stalking defectors in US

The expulsion of sixty Russians with diplomatic cover after the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal may have been more targeted than first thought. CNN reports that the expelled included Russian agents who had tracked defectors and others with knowledge of Vladimir Putin’s regime. After the spectacular attack on Skripal, US intelligence agencies raised an alarm over what might come next here at home without a disruption to those efforts:

Among the dozens of Russian diplomats the US expelled last month were suspected spies who US law enforcement and intelligence officials believe were tracking Russian defectors and their families who had resettled in the US, officials briefed on the matter tell CNN.

In at least one instance, suspected Russian spies were believed to be casing someone who was part of a CIA program that provided new identities to protect resettled Russians, the officials said.

That episode and other US intelligence raised concerns that the Russians were preparing to target Russian émigrés in the US labeled by the Kremlin as traitors or enemies, law enforcement and intelligence officials said.

I’ll bet it did, but why did it take so long? The Brits may have kept it on the down-low for diplomatic and geopolitical reasons, but Russian emigrés have been dropping in the UK under suspicious circumstances for years. The lack of official response appears to have emboldened Moscow into removing all subtlety and nuance from these assassinations, leaving evidence that makes sure all defectors and turncoats understand the message: We will get you sooner or later.

As it turns out, US intelligence sent another message yesterday:

U.S. inspectors have swept the Russian consulate in Seattle after the Trump administration ordered Russia to vacate the property in a dramatic response to Russia’s alleged poisoning of an ex-spy in the United Kingdom.

The security sweep took place Wednesday after the U.S. gave Russia extra time to hand over control of the facility — but it was met by Russian protests and claims the U.S. was violating international agreements. …

Russian officials were on the scene to document what they called a “break-in” and take video of the “intruders” that was then published on the Russian embassy’s Twitter account.

That takes some chutzpah, especially since the international protection on the consulate expired already. The US exercised its right to revoke consular status in Seattle just as the Russians did in St. Petersburg to the US. In fact, the US gave Russia an extra three weeks to clear out of the Seattle consulate, which was supposed to be emptied on April 1. After its diplomatic status ceased, it became just another building in the US. If the Russians couldn’t clean up their work in the extra three weeks they had, well, too bad.

Now that their personnel have had their covers blown, it’s just as well for Russia that they’ve been expelled. Russia will eventually cycle new stalkers back under diplomatic cover, but hopefully the US will take a more proactive approach to expulsions. At least if we want to maintain confidence among our sources and cultivate new ones, we’d better get a lot tougher than in the past.