BY FRANCO ORDONEZ
AND KEVIN G. HALL
MCCLATCHY WASHINGTON BUREAU/TNS
WASHINGTON – The Trump administration expelled 60 Russian diplomats and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle – the latter to help block Moscow from spying on U.S. Naval Base Kitsap, the home port of U.S. Navy nuclear submarines in Washington state.
The White House took the dramatic step in conjunction with more than a dozen European allies retaliating against Moscow’s alleged role in poisoning a former Russian spy living in the United Kingdom. It is said to be the largest, global one-time expulsion of a country’s intelligence officials ever.
The aggressive actions run counter to President Donald Trump’s efforts to improve ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and instead reflect the U.S. intelligence apparatus’s growing concerns of increased Russian surveillance on Washington and critical military bases.
“It’s not just any naval base,” said Brian McKeon, who served as principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy under President Barack Obama. “It’s one of the two bases where we have submarines that have nuclear weapons.”
Dozens of European and NATO allies joined the United States and expelled Russian intelligence officials from their countries.
European Union nations on Monday expelled 30 people, Ukraine ordered 13 to leave and Canada expelled seven. British Prime Minister Theresa May called it “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history.”
Mike Carpenter, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense with responsibility for the Russia portfolio until January 2017, called the expulsions an important step, but more symbolic if not followed up with more consequential actions.
One option for a next step, he suggested, includes financial sanctions similar to those imposed on Iran that would prohibit transactions with Russian financial institutions and Russian defense companies.
“Such steps would have a strong impact on Moscow’s calculus,” Carpenter said. “The expulsion of Russian diplomats alone, however, is unlikely to deter Russia from its aggressive behavior.”
Moscow quickly vowed retaliation.
“There will be a mirror-like response,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We consider this step as unfriendly and not serving the tasks and interests of establishing the causes and finding the perpetrators of the incident that took place on March 4 in Salisbury.”
Russia has repeatedly denied being behind the nerve-agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury on March 4.
Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found unconscious on a public bench in a shopping center and remain critically ill in a hospital.
Trump has yet to speak publicly about the expulsion. Nor did Trump raise the accusations of poisoning of the ex-spy in a phone call with Putin last week.
He instead went against the advice of national security advisers by congratulating the Russian leader on his March 18 re-election victory.
The White House said it continues to want to build a better relationship with Russia, but that’s only possible if Russia changes its behavior and recognizes that its actions have consequences.
Lots of spies
A senior administration official warned of an “unacceptably high” number of spies at the Russian consulate in Seattle.
“It sends a very clear signal, particularly since on the West Coast, the Russians will now have a degraded capability with regards to spying on our citizens,” a senior administration official said Monday.
The number of ousted Russian officials — including a dozen at the United Nations — is almost double the amount expelled by President Barack Obama in December 2016 in retaliation for Moscow’s interference in the U.S. presidential election. And it is nearly three times more than the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats by Great Britain earlier this month.
It even surpasses the 51 Russian diplomats expelled by President George W. Bush in 2001.
The closure of the Seattle consulate is a significant blow to Russian espionage, according to one former high-level U.S. official who handled Russian intelligence.
The former official said Russia is not only interested in the military base, but also the aircraft manufacturer Boeing and the shopping website Amazon, whose reach and products extends into homes across America.
“Seattle is an important tech center” of interest to Russian intelligence, said the official, pointing to the 2010 U.S. arrests of 10 members of a Russian sleeper cell.
The cell, with some members in Seattle, became notorious for its attractive spy Anna Chapman. Chapman was part of what the Justice Department called the Illegals Program, which became the inspiration for the popular TV series “The Americans.”
In real life, the cell members lived normal suburban lives, had U.S.-born children and assimilated.
Two other alleged cell members were implicated, including 23-year-old Alexey Karetnikov, who worked as an entry-level software tester for Microsoft in Seattle. He was deported for immigration violations.
“A consulate is a clandestine signals-collection site … and is a base of operations,” said the official, noting Russian collection abilities have been dealt other recent setbacks with the closure last year of the Russian consulate in San Francisco and Russia’s traditional “vacation” compounds in Maryland and New York State due to alleged espionage activities.