There's a huge caveat in the US' expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats

  • The US' expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats in response to a chemical attack on a former Russian spy in the UK, announced earlier this week, has a huge loophole.
  • A State Department official confirmed that the US will not require Russia to reduce the number of staff in its Washington embassy.
  • In other words, the 60 diplomats — many of whom were undercover intelligence officers — who were kicked out can be replaced by others.
  • Targeted expulsions like this week's are not uncommon; the Obama administration's move to expel 35 diplomats in 2016 was made under similar conditions.

President Donald Trump's administration announced this week that it would expel 60 Russian diplomats from the US and close a Russian diplomatic compound in Seattle in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK.

The nerve agent attack against former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia earlier this month is widely believed to have been ordered by the Russian government. The White House's expulsion, which was coordinated with similar expulsions of Russian diplomats by more than 20 other countries, signaled a resounding rebuke from the West against Russia's increasingly aggressive posturing.

But there's a catch.

A State Department official confirmed to Business Insider that the White House's diplomatic expulsion will not require Russia to reduce its staffing levels in the US, and vice versa. In other words, the 60 diplomats who were kicked out — many of whom were undercover intelligence operatives — can be replaced by others.

USA Today first reported the news on Friday.

SEE ALSO: US consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia

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US consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - MARCH 29, 2018: A view of the US Consulate General at Furstatskaya Street in St Petersburg. Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)
A view through a fence shows the building of the consulate-general of the U.S. in St. Petersburg, Russia March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
A man walks near the building of the consulate-general of the U.S. in St. Petersburg, Russia March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
A view through a fence shows the building of the consulate-general of the U.S. in St. Petersburg, Russia March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
Policemen stand guard outside the building of the consulate-general of the U.S. in St. Petersburg, Russia March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
The state flag of the U.S. flies outside the building of the country's consulate-general in St. Petersburg, Russia March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
The flag of the U.S. flies outside the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 31, 2017. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
Security officers watch a consulate car entering the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 31, 2017. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
A security officer speaks with a driver near the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 31, 2017. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
A police officer walks outside the US Consulate building in St.Petersburg on March 29, 2018. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on March 29, 2018 Moscow would expel 60 US diplomats and close its consulate in Saint Petersburg in a tit-for-tat expulsion over the poisoning of ex-double agent Sergei Skripal. / AFP PHOTO / OLGA MALTSEVA (Photo credit should read OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images)
A security officer stands guard outside the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 31, 2017. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
A photo taken on March 29, 2018 shows the US Consulate building in St.Petersburg. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on March 29, 2018 Moscow would expel 60 US diplomats and close its consulate in Saint Petersburg in a tit-for-tat expulsion over the poisoning of ex-double agent Sergei Skripal. / AFP PHOTO / OLGA MALTSEVA (Photo credit should read OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - MARCH 29, 2018: A view of the US Consulate General at Furstatskaya Street in St Petersburg. Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - MARCH 29, 2018: A view of the US Consulate General at Furstatskaya Street in St Petersburg. Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - MARCH 29, 2018: A view of the US Consulate General at Furstatskaya Street in St Petersburg. Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - MARCH 29, 2018: A view of the US Consulate General at Furstatskaya Street in St Petersburg. Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)
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The revelation initially gained traction in Russian state media, which said an anonymous senior White House staffer told the Russian government that it could send new diplomats to take the place of those who had been expelled. The Russian state media outlet Vesti quoted the official as saying, "The doors are open."

The Russian embassy in Washington currently employs 190 people, while the US embassy in Moscow has 1100. In response to the US' expulsion of 60 Russian intelligence operatives, Russia said it would respond in kind by expelling 60 US diplomats and closing the US consulate in St. Petersburg.

Targeted expulsions like the one announced this week are not uncommon. When former President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats in response to Russia's interference in the 2016 US election, the move was made under similar conditions.

Russia, however, responded to Obama's targeted expulsion by ordering the US embassy in Moscow to cut its staff by 755 diplomats, meaning those who were kicked out could not later be replaced by newcomers.

A widening rift between Trump and his administration

This week's expulsions will likely have little effect on Russia's intelligence-gathering or cyber operations. 

But they are significant for one key reason, which the Russian foreign ministry unwittingly revealed in its statement this week.

"The provocative gesture of solidarity with London by these countries, who have bowed to the British authorities in the so-called Skripal affair and did not bother to understand the circumstances of what happened, is a continuation of the confrontational path to escalation," the foreign ministry said.

The primary objective of Russia's brand of information warfare against the West — known as "dezinformatsiya" — is to sow discord among nations Russian President Vladimir Putin considers hostile to his goal of reverting to the Soviet era. In many ways, the coordinated expulsions of Russian diplomats this week struck at the core of that intent. 

The Russian foreign ministry's statement calling the move a "provocative gesture of solidarity" highlighted that Russia was not so much bothered by the act itself of diplomatic expulsions, but rather its signal that Western alliances still held strong.

Members of Trump's administration have sought to capitalize on the expulsions to push a more hawkish stance against Russia, but Trump remains unconvinced, reportedly telling advisers he favors a more cooperative approach toward Putin.

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Notable people who have been fired or resigned from Trump's administration

White House Communications Director Hope Hicks reportedly announced her resignation after testifying about her job and being required to tell "white lies."

(Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned from his position on July 5, 2018 after a number of ethics scandals.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Rob Porter resigned as White House staff secretary in February 2018 amid abuse allegations made by his ex-wives.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired by President Trump in March 2018.

(Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

H.R. McMaster was replaced by John Bolton as national security advisor in March 2018.

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

White House aide Kelly Sadler left her position in June 2018 after reportedly mocking Sen. John McCain.

(REUTERS/Leah Millis)

Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn announced his resignation in March 2018 after becoming a key architect of the 2017 tax overhaul 

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

Sally Yates was fired from her post as acting attorney general when she refused to enforce President Trump's travel ban. 

(Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser in February after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his interactions with Russian officials. 

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

President Trump announced David Shulkin was out as secretary of veterans affairs by sending a tweet announcing he had nominated his personal physican, Ronny Jackson, to replace him on March 28, 2018.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in early May.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer resigned in July.

(June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus resigned in July.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Former advisor to President Donald Trump Steve Bannon resigned in August.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Anthony Scaramucci, former White House communications director was fired in July after just 10 days on the job. 

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Trump fired Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh amid White House leaks in April.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria/Files)

Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price resigned in late September. 

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

White House aide Omarosa Manigault insists she resigned and was not fired from her role in December 2017.

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Trump fired U.S. Attorney in Manhattan Preet Bharara in March.

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

Mike Dubke resigned as White House communications director in late May.

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Walter Shaub, former Director of the United States Office of Government Ethics in Washington, DC resigned in July.

(Photo Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

White House deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka resigned in August 2017. 

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Rick Dearborn, White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Legislative Affairs, left the White House in December 2017.

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

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He is also said to have ordered aides not to talk publicly about tough measures he approves against Russia because he doesn't want to anger Putin.

Indeed, the US has taken a number of aggressive actions against Russia over the last year, including imposing sanctions, publicly blaming Russia for the widespread "NotPetya" cyberattack, shuttering Russian diplomatic compounds, and approving the sale of lethal arms to Ukraine.

Trump's silence, meanwhile, points to an ever-growing rift between him and his own national security apparatus when it comes to addressing Russia.

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