The UK has decided to expel Russian diplomats as response to the poisoning of an ex Russian spy in the UK. This tactic has been used by UK and other countries in the past (example: 4 diplomats were expelled by the UK when another Russian spy was poisoned)

As far as I know, this is not the same as breaking of diplomatic ties with another country, meaning that the expelled diplomats will just be replaced with a new set of diplomats. So it seems like an inconvenience at best?

How does the expelling of diplomats work to create pressure on the diplomats' home country?

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    You may be expecting too much. A lot of diplomacy is symbolic.
    – chirlu
    Commented Mar 15, 2018 at 11:22
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    This question seems to be assuming a lot. Why do you assume that the UK did this to influence Russia? And not to influence the EU, British voters, Tory MPs, the British Media etc? It may be better to ask "why would a politician expel diplomats?" to receive full and accurate answers.
    – Scott
    Commented Mar 15, 2018 at 22:21

3 Answers 3


It is an open secret that most diplomatic missions all around the world are also involved in intelligence service operations. This isn't a Russian thing. Everyone does that. So forcing another government to replace personnel also inconveniences their intelligence services. But unless they actually expel the whole diplomatic mission and reappropriate their embassy and consulates, this won't really stop them in the long term.

Expelling diplomats as retaliation for something which is not related to the personal conduct of the diplomats is usually a symbolic gesture.

When a country's sovereignty is violated, for example by other governments apparently performing political assassinations on their territory, then the government needs to show some reaction. Otherwise they will have to face allegations from the opposition that they didn't do anything about it. However, more serious reactions, like trade sanctions or military retaliation, would further escalate the situation and might cause more harm than good for the country. So they usually pick the safe option of a purely diplomatic response. This sets a clear signal "We are not OK with this" while not unnecessarily burning any bridges or dragging the nation into a costly conflict.

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    +1. It's also a pain for all of the diplomatic staff who are there as part of of the diplomatic mission and also their families.
    – Miller86
    Commented Mar 15, 2018 at 12:27
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    The British P.M. specifically said that expelling these diplomats would hinder Russian intelligence in the U.K. (which they're not really supposed to be doing, remember). Commented Mar 17, 2018 at 20:29

Several important factors impose the pressure against the diplomats' home country (in general and in this particular case):

  1. Expelling the diplomats quite often ruins the entire spy network;
  2. Expelling the diplomats is often only the first step in a chain of escalating events;
  3. This particular expulsion is unique by its size and future consequences.

Ruin the entire spy network

Although the expulsion of 23 of totally 58 accredited Russian diplomats may seem a half-measure, it is not. It is not about those 23 physical people who will surely be appointed, say, to work in the Russian embassy in another country. The recent expulsion of Russian diplomats indicates that accredited diplomats were on top of a large network of local agents and collaborators.

When in December 2016 the US expelled Russian diplomats, the Russians were forced to destroy evidence of their "work" on the soil of the US. We don't know how many local agents were left without cover, but we can safely assume that the number of "active measures" has radically dropped since then — at least, temporarily.

Smoke billows from a chimney on top of the Russian consulate in San Francisco
Smoke billows from a chimney on top of the Russian consulate in San Francisco
Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Also, the fewer personnel the embassy has, the less legal support the Russian citizens who legally live in the U.K. will receive. This will impose the pressure on the Russian government from oligarchs who have settled in the West, whose property is in the West, whose children study in Western universities, and sometimes even barely speak Russian because for all their life they have lived in the West.

One Slice at a Time

The proposed chain of measures to put Russia off further attacks is impressive. It includes:

  • closer monitoring and financial sanctions against top Russian officials and oligarchs who have settled safe in the U.K.;
  • more pressure on Russian propaganda that still actively works against British citizens;
  • convincing partner countries (US, France, Germany) and organizations (NATO) to join the multilateral attempt to stop the Russian "active measures" in Europe and in the world.

Also, Russia anticipates the U.K. extraditing 40 criminals, including serial killers. So it is possible that 17 more are to be expelled.

The Unique Event

The Independent puts it this way:

The biggest expulsion of Russian spies from the UK for more than 30 years has been ordered by Theresa May, as she vowed to degrade the country’s espionage network “for years to come”.

However, the main message must be that, for the first time in its modern history, the U.K. officially acknowledges a chemical attack against the Kingdom (against the citizens of the UK, occurred on British soil) and condemns it.

Personal opinion: I'm monitoring the Russian press, and the hysteria there (like "a-ha-ha, look, the Queen will not attend a sports competition! Give us MORE sanctions like that!") only confirms my impression that this time the U.K. is doing the right thing.

  • Saying "Image courtesy of Deutsche Welle" is a claim that they gave permission for the image to be used. Is that the case, or is that just where you took it from? Commented Mar 15, 2018 at 19:43
  • Probably best to just link to the article and say that it includes the picture, rather than including the picture itself. Commented Mar 15, 2018 at 19:48
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    Ok, now you’re not claiming to have permission that you don’t have. But you shouldn’t be including images without permission. Commented Mar 15, 2018 at 20:29
  • The problem with this explanation is that it is not clear why those reactions aren't done in any case. Do I first need a murder to monitor possible illegal activities of Russian oligarchs, work against Russian propaganda, or destroy their spy networks?
    – Thern
    Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 8:19
  • @Thern, totally true. But the diplomatic relations not always follow the normal people's logic. The murder clearly looks like a trigger. Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 8:28

As far as I know, this is not the same as breaking of diplomatic ties with another country, meaning that the expelled diplomats will just be replaced with a new set of diplomats.

That's not a given. Russia can't just say "OK, fine. These 23 people are our new diplomats." Rather, the UK must agree to give diplomatic status to these people. Recall, for example, that Ecuador tried to appoint Julian Assange as a diplomatic courier and the UK refused. Likewise, one assumes that the UK won't give accreditation to any replacement staff for the 23 people who were expelled.

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