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Ottawa’s expulsion of Russian embassy staff this year went beyond the usual quiet approach to diplomatic punishment. Newly declassified documents reveal how Canada sought to send the Kremlin a message

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Graphics and illustration by John Sopinski

On the morning of March 27, Canada’s ambassador to Russia typed an urgent e-mail to senior government officials in Ottawa marked: “Secret… Canadian Eyes Only… Importance: High.”

The classified memo, sent to about a dozen people in Global Affairs Canada, was titled, “Preparations for Russian Countermeasures.”

John Kur, the ambassador in Moscow, was getting ready for a backlash.

“It is impossible to know when I will be summoned,” Mr. Kur wrote to his colleagues and superiors back in Canada, suspecting he would soon be hauled into a meeting with Russia’s Foreign Minister. “Based entirely on ‘gut instinct,’ I think that Good Friday 30 March is likely.”

Ottawa had just ordered four Russian diplomats to leave Canada. But unlike previous cases where foreign embassy staff were expelled discreetly to avoid provoking an international squabble, this time Ottawa made no effort to conceal the moves.

In a public statement, the government accused the four Russians of using their diplomatic status “to undermine Canada’s security or interfere in our democracy,” adding that the expulsions were being done in solidarity with Britain.

Only three weeks earlier, Sergei Skripal, a 66-year old Russian double agent who had been caught spying for British intelligence and later relocated to Britain through a spy swap between the two countries, was found near-death on a park bench in the English city of Salisbury. His 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, slumped next to him. They were barely conscious and foaming at the mouth.

The culprit, British investigators determined, was Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent developed by Russia in the 1980s. The deadly chemical is absorbed easily through the skin and had been sprayed on the doorknob of Mr. Skripal’s home.

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Military personnel dig near the area where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found on a park bench in Salisbury.Ben Birchall/The Associated Press

It was the first known use of a nerve agent as a weapon in Europe since the Second World War – and it caused a political firestorm. The British government called it a clear “hostile action” on its soil and, despite Russia’s denials, responded by kicking 23 members of the Russian embassy out of Britain – alleging they were, in fact, spies working under diplomatic cover.

Russia responded with threats of its own.

“There will be expulsions,” said Russia’s ambassador to Britain, Alexander Yakovenko. “As you understand in diplomatic practice, there will be answers from the Russian side.”

It didn’t take long. A few days later, Russia expelled exactly the same number of Brits. A diplomatic war had begun, and Canada – along with more than two dozen other countries – would soon be involved.

Such diplomatic games are played by their own set of rules. When governments challenge each other, the embassies are often the first to feel the friction. Diplomats are ejected, suspected spies are uprooted and embassy staff are slashed. It is a means of political protest – a proxy war between sparring countries.

The stakes are high. Handled poorly, these diplomatic skirmishes can escalate into a full-blown crisis, something Canada has learned the hard way before.

But this year’s standoff with Russia was different than many of Canada’s past battles. More than 180 pages of documents recently obtained by The Globe and Mail through access to information, including several classified files, provide a glimpse into how this hidden game is played, and how Canada began approaching it very differently in 2018.

As one senior official in Global Affairs Canada suggested in an e-mail to his colleagues in the spring: Ottawa didn’t merely want to expel the diplomats as punishment. It wanted to send the Russian government a message.

“This is important,” the senior official wrote.

Immediately following the poisoning

of Sergei Skripal in England

British expulsions of Russian diplomats: 23

Russian expulsions of British diplomats: 23

Immediately following the poisoning

of Sergei Skripal in England

British expulsions of Russian diplomats: 23

Russian expulsions of British diplomats: 23

Immediately following the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in England

British expulsions of Russian diplomats: 23

Russian expulsions of British diplomats: 23


The British government’s decision to expel nearly two dozen Russian diplomats in retaliation for the Skripal poisoning was a bold move.

Not only did Britain accuse each of the 23 diplomats in question of being “undeclared intelligence officers,” – a provocative declaration on its own – but the number of expulsions itself was significant, representing more than a third of Russia’s 65 diplomatic staff in London.

Such measures were not taken lightly. In the diplomatic world, scores are settled in tit-for-tat fashion. The British could expect Moscow to respond in kind, which would mean their own embassy operations in Russia were about to take a similar, sizable hit in retaliation.

As this battle was unfolding, the Canadian ambassador, Mr. Kur, sent a memo to his colleagues in Ottawa saying it was critical that Canada stand in solidarity with its ally. Canada had already denounced the incident as “despicable” in a formal statement from the Prime Minister, but it now had to decide what to do about it.

Mr. Kur’s March 19 e-mail, titled “Analysis: Canada’s Response to the Salisbury Incident,” called for a similarly decisive response as the one from the British.

Given that Russia was alleged to have violated international treaties on the use of chemical weapons, the Canadian ambassador suggested pushing back against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Against this grave backdrop, and given [the] re-election of the Russian President for a new six-year term, it is incumbent on Canada to stand firmly with the UK as has been unequivocally stated by our Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and other government Ministers,” Mr. Kur wrote his colleagues.

Deciding to act was not necessarily the hard part. Figuring out exactly how far to go was more difficult. If Canada were to expel Russian diplomats in protest, how aggressive should that rebuke be?

“Expulsions themselves involve a complicated calculus,” said Wesley Wark, an expert on foreign affairs who teaches at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies. “There are no rules about how many can or should be expelled.”

The goal is to draw a clear line in the sand – challenging an adversary’s conduct or policies, or demonstrating support for an ally. But the response must strike a careful balance: Too weak, and credibility is lost. Too strong, and the expulsions could easily inflame the situation, landing the two countries in a diplomatic standoff.

“Everybody would have their own kind of cost-benefit calculations,” Mr. Wark said.

“When a country expels foreign agents, it knows that there will be a strong likelihood of tit-for-tat expulsions, and perhaps other measures of retaliation, and so that has to be taken into account.”

These expulsions, part of the diplomatic tool box for centuries, were employed often during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, as a form of symbolic protest.

In 1956, Canada expelled a Soviet diplomat caught trying to obtain classified details of the CF-105 jet fighter. In 1965, two Soviets were expelled after they were caught recruiting a Vancouver post-office worker to set up a spy ring. And in 1976, Vladimir Vassiliev, an assistant attaché at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa was expelled for “activities incompatible with his diplomatic status” – which is the widely accepted embassy euphemism for: He was caught spying.

Between 1946 and 1989, Canada expelled 51 Soviet diplomats in total, according to data compiled by The Globe and Mail. However, these are just the known cases. It is possible some never were made public.

Typically, the situations are handled quietly, away from the public eye.

When Royal Canadian Navy sailor Jeffrey Paul Delisle was caught selling classified documents to Russia in 2012, two diplomats and four embassy technical staff were sent back to Moscow, though Ottawa didn’t formally acknowledge the expulsions.

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Jeffrey Paul Delisle leaves court in Halifax on Oct. 10, 2012.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

And in 2014, the last time Canada kicked a Russian diplomat out of the country, a fight over Ottawa’s refusal to issue visas to incoming embassy staff amid the annexation of Crimea led Moscow to send a low-level Canadian diplomat home, prompting Canada to jettison a Russian military attaché in response.

In both cases, Ottawa tried to handle the situations without fanfare, hoping not to inflame matters. Or, in the case of Mr. Delisle, not wanting to draw more attention to the embarrassing security breach.

But this year’s expulsions would be dramatically different. Having weighed the severity of the situation compared with past cases, Global Affairs Canada decided on four diplomatic expulsions – not the largest number ever ordered, and not the smallest. But the number was less important than how Ottawa would go about the move.

Inside the federal government, a move was afoot to not only show solidarity with Britain and other countries joining the protest against the Skripal poisoning, but also to publicly air several of Canada’s outstanding grievances with Russia in the process. It was a departure from previous foreign-affairs strategy.

The situation in Salisbury wasn’t merely reprehensible.

It was an opportunity.

During the Cold War (1946-1989)

Canadian expulsions of Soviet diplomats: 51

During the Cold War (1946-1989)

Canadian expulsions of Soviet diplomats: 51

During the Cold War (1946-1989)

Canadian expulsions of Soviet diplomats: 51


The first task in any embassy tussle is to figure out which diplomats will be ordered to leave. In diplomatic parlance, they are declared PNG – short for Persona non Grata.

Many large embassies, particularly those run by superpowers, involve two primary functions: official diplomacy and unofficial intelligence gathering. The diplomats are responsible for forging relationships within their assigned country, while the spies – operating under diplomatic cover with jobs as attachés and the like – are there to gather intelligence. Governments deny this happens, but the long list of incidences where diplomatic staffers are accused of espionage or caught in the act, suggests many of those denials are hollow.

Expulsions can be used as a form of punishment, disrupting embassy operations, or to clear out suspected agents, which forces the country to rebuild its intelligence capacity.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when countries go looking for names to expel, they usually consult with their own counterintelligence agencies on who they should target, focusing on agents suspected of operating under diplomatic cover, and those they have the strongest evidence against.

“It’s not done arbitrarily,” said Lawrence Herman, a former Canadian diplomat who now practises international trade law in Toronto. “These are carefully calibrated political and diplomatic decisions.”

The largest single case of expulsions involving Canada and Russia came in 1978 when Ottawa forced 11 officials out of the country, and revoked the visas of two others, after Soviet agents were discovered trying to infiltrate the RCMP.

The plot was orchestrated by Igor Vartanian, who was operating in Canada as the Soviet embassy’s first secretary responsible for sports and cultural affairs. Russian agents approached an unnamed RCMP officer at his home in 1977, offering cash for classified documents. The officer played along, then turned them in. Under international agreements, their role as diplomats meant they could not be imprisoned. So Mr. Vartanian and the others were given 48 hours to leave the country for “activities incompatible with their diplomatic status.”

The case prompted a furor in the House of Commons. Conservative MP Otto Jelinek, though declining to divulge his source, produced a list of 14 more Soviet embassy staff he alleged were spies. Pierre Trudeau’s government shrugged off the mania, but Mr. Jelinek may have been on to something. Two years later, a pair of military attachés on his infamous list were accused of espionage and ordered expelled.

The line between diplomat and spy is often a blurry one.

Peter Fosbery, a former member of the Canadian military, remembers his father, Colonel H.T. Fosbery, Canada’s Director of Military Intelligence, mingling with diplomats from other countries, and it was always understood that some of them were likely spies.

“On his first cocktail party at the Russian embassy, he knew the room was bugged,” Mr. Fosbery recalls. “He said in an elevated voice that he wished the embassy would not serve the cheap scotch he had to endure. Sure enough, on his next visit, there was a fine single malt to be had.”

Peter had just entered Royal Military College in Kingston. Having grown up in this environment, he was well aware of his surroundings.

“I had to accompany my father to most of the embassies on New Year’s Day levies. A classmate and myself were talking to a low-level [Soviet] embassy clerk and planted the idea that munitions innovations were conducted at the Fort Frederick Museum on the college grounds in Kingston.”

It seemed like an innocuous prank.

“Some weeks later, a Soviet embassy member was arrested in Kingston for being outside the diplomatic-allowable driving limits. He had visited the museum. Nobody knew why. We did. I was too afraid to tell my Dad.”

Because they operate under immunity from prosecution, diplomatic staff who are caught red-handed are usually expelled immediately. But in cases where the government looks to trim embassy ranks for political reasons – such as this year’s protest against the Skripal poisoning – officials suspected of being intelligence agents are often the first to be targeted.

Of the four expulsions Canada ordered this year, three of the Russians were alleged spies working under diplomatic cover in Canada. The fourth was the head of communications for the Russian embassy, suspected of using his position to run influence operations in the country.

Though past expulsions had often been done quietly, even surreptitiously, these would be different. There was a bigger plan in the works.

1978 - The largest single expulsion

Canadian expulsions of Soviet diplomats:

11 expulsions + 2 denied entry

1978 - The largest single expulsion

Canadian expulsions of Soviet diplomats:

11 expulsions + 2 denied entry

1978 - The largest single expulsion

Canadian expulsions of Soviet diplomats: 11 expulsions + 2 denied entry


On Sunday, March 25, staff at Global Affairs Canada began formulating a statement that Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland would make the next morning.

Ottawa’s relationship with Russia was already chilly. Ms. Freeland, a staunch critic of Mr. Putin’s policies, had been barred from travelling to Russia in 2014. When she was later named to her current post, the ban resulted in an extremely rare case of a foreign minister essentially being declared PNG by another country. But relations were about to get frostier.

Canada was expelling four Russian diplomats, its largest number in years, as an act of solidarity with Britain. It would also decline to renew the visas of three more embassy employees who had already left the country, barring them from returning, which brought the number of diplomatic targets to seven.

Now the job was to figure out what to say publicly and, in a move not typically seen in such circumstances, how to push a new, more aggressive Canadian agenda into the mix. Across Europe, Germany, France and other governments had used the Skripal situation to raise their own objections with the Putin regime. Canada would do the same.

According to the documents obtained by The Globe, Canada’s statement was organized into three sections: The first dealt with the measures being taken by Ottawa – the expulsions. The second, according to an internal e-mail on the drafting of the response, addressed “Russia’s culpability and pattern of behaviour,” essentially laying out the case against the Putin government. The third section listed specific incidents where Canada believed Russia had acted improperly.

At 8:44 p.m., as federal employees scrutinized the wording they would use – debating whether to include terms such as “influence operations,” in the allegations, for example – Mark Gwozdecky, assistant deputy minister for International Security, jumped into the conversation. The senior government official insisted on several key changes to the public statement that would dramatically recast the government’s message.

While the expulsions were done in solidarity with Britain, Canada had its own issues with Russia and wanted to pursue those matters. It wasn’t just about the Skripal poisoning, or what went on in England. There was a bigger concern, closer to home.

The federal government had found evidence of Russian meddling in Canada and wanted to make a point of it.

The statement wasn’t just about Salisbury, it was also “in response to the broad pattern of Russian misbehaviour in Canada and abroad,” Mr. Gwozdecky wrote.

“This is important. Saying we are undertaking these measures solely in response to Salisbury suggests that we would have put up with their diplomats engaging in foreign interference indefinitely. We need to convey that these measures are equally in response to Russian misbehaviour in Canada.”

The statement was broadened further.

Among his other suggested changes, Mr. Gwozdecky instructed Foreign Affairs staff, “Please add to the list of misbehaviour Russia’s complicity with the Assad regime in its use of chemical weapons and atrocities against the civilian population.”

This was significant. The federal government was not only crafting a public statement to announce the expulsion of diplomats, but it was using the moment to open the matter to a broader debate – criticizing Russia for its co-operation with the Syrian dictator at the helm of a bloody civil war, its meddling in Western elections, and the 2014 annexation of Crimea. It wasn’t merely about four diplomats suspected of going outside their authorized roles in Canada. It was a chance to air further grievances that the department was not going to pass up.

“Sorry to jump in late,” Mr. Gwozdecky wrote to the group that Sunday evening. “This is a very important NR [news release] and so very important to get it right.”

By 9:30 p.m., after multiple rewrites, the draft copy of the statement was sent to the government’s lawyers for sign-off. It read:

“The nerve agent attack in Salisbury, on the soil of Canada’s close partner and ally, is a despicable, heinous and reckless act, potentially endangering the lives of hundreds.”

“We are expelling four members of Russia’s diplomatic staff, serving either at the Embassy of the Russian Federation or the Consulate-General of the Russian Federation in Montreal. The four have been identified as intelligence officers or individuals who have used their diplomatic status to undermine Canada’s security or interfere in our democracy…

“This is part of a wider pattern of unacceptable behaviour by Russia, including complicity with the Assad regime, the annexation of Crimea, Russian-led fighting in eastern Ukraine, support for civil strife in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and other neighbouring countries, interference in elections, and disinformation campaigns.”

It was among the broadest condemnations Canada had made against Russia in recent decades.

The diplomats were given 10 days to leave the country.

In Moscow, Mr. Kur knew what that meant. Retaliation was coming.

After the Skripal poisoning

Canadian expulsions of Russian diplomats:

4 expulsions + 3 denied entry

After the Skripal poisoning

Canadian expulsions of Russian diplomats:

4 expulsions + 3 denied entry

After the Skripal poisoning

Canadian expulsions of Russian diplomats: 4 expulsions + 3 denied entry


Though the rules surrounding expulsions are largely unwritten, they are widely understood among nations. When one side declares a diplomat persona non grata, it can usually expect a response.

“When we expel any diplomat, we know that the response of the country concerned is going to be that Canadians will be expelled from that country. We know that. It’s accepted,” said Mr. Herman, the former diplomat. “So there has to be a careful weighting of the measure to anticipate a like response.”

When NATO expelled two members of Russia’s mission from its Brussels headquarters in 2009 over security concerns, Russia went looking for retribution. A week later, two Canadian diplomats working as NATO employees based in Moscow were ordered out.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said at the time that the retaliation against Canada was unwarranted. “I don’t want to say this is the Cold War,” he said. “But it’s certainly not an ideal situation.”

Russia’s foreign ministry replied that it was simply following, “the rules of the game.”

Even though such rules are understood and accepted, there is always a danger that these back-and-forth exchanges will escalate.

The defection of a Soviet translator in 1988 saw a cache of information on Russian spy efforts handed over to the West. Canada and Russia soon found themselves in the middle of a diplomatic crisis.

Levelling allegations of espionage against Moscow, Ottawa expelled eight Soviet diplomats, and barred 9 more from re-entering Canada.

Moscow responded by expelling a Canadian diplomat and blacklisting seven from returning. But it wasn’t done.

The Soviets retaliated by withdrawing a further 25 local support staff from the Canadian embassy in Moscow.

From the outside, this might have seemed minor. But it was a clear shot across the bow at Canada. Russian-speaking support staff were crucial to keeping the Canadian embassy running. Though they weren’t privy to classified information, they assisted in clerical work, visa applications, transportation arrangements, cleaning the building and washing dishes.

Russia’s move meant that Canada’s embassy staff were forced to mop the floors and answer phones themselves.

Russia scoffed that Canada was trying to act like a superpower. But a senior official in External Affairs Minister Joe Clark’s office insisted Ottawa wouldn’t back down.

“Both sides would like this thing to come to an end, but they chose to bump it up again,” the Canadian official told The Globe in 1988. “The Russians have to realize that just because we are not a superpower, we are not going to roll over.”

Canada had deviated from its usual formula of announcing small, gradual expulsions, and was instead raising the stakes − which roiled the Soviets.

“The Soviet Union is a great power which cannot allow itself to be insulted in this way,” Yuli Vorontsov, the Soviet deputy foreign minister, said. “People who do insult it will not be permitted to do so with impunity.”

Setting aside the rhetoric and theatrics, Canada was never going to win a war of attrition with Russia. The Russians had a much bigger embassy presence in the West. In a battle of numbers, Moscow’s adversaries would run out of diplomats before Russia did.

The United States learned that lesson in 1986, when Russia withdrew 260 support staff from the U.S. embassy amid an escalating diplomatic confrontation, leaving American diplomats to fend for themselves. And in 1985, after Britain expelled 25 Soviet diplomats, the Russians matched the number, prompting Britain to counter with eight more. The Soviets matched and signalled more was to come. London soon gave up.

Such standoffs between governments usually require an intervention of sorts to end them, or to at least lower the temperature.

“Very often it will be influenced by appeals from ambassadors," Mr. Wark said. “The Canadian ambassador in Moscow would say [to Ottawa], ‘Okay, we’ve done this much, can we kind of slow it down now? It’s gone far enough, because I need to continue to function here.’ And the Russian ambassador in Ottawa might have the very same message to his home government.”

The 1988 crisis was eventually resolved when Mr. Clark, under increasing pressure, called for a freeze on new expulsions. Satisfied, Soviet Ambassador Alexei Rodionov declared the entire saga a “misunderstanding.”

The 1988 Diplomatic Crisis with the Soviet Union

Canadian expulsions of Soviet diplomats:

8 expulsions + 9 denied entry

Soviet response: 1 expulsion + 7 denied entry

+ 25 local staff recalled

The 1988 Diplomatic Crisis with the Soviet Union

Canadian expulsions of Soviet diplomats:

8 expulsions + 9 denied entry

Soviet response: 1 expulsion + 7 denied entry

+ 25 local staff recalled

The 1988 Diplomatic Crisis with the Soviet Union

Canadian expulsions of Soviet diplomats: 8 expulsions + 9 denied entry

Soviet response: 1 expulsion + 7 denied entry + 25 local staff recalled


At 9:30 a.m. on March 26 of this year, Canada’s expulsions were announced. With the news circulating, the government now needed to control the message. There would be protests from Russia, potentially a war of words, and calls from the media. Ottawa needed to have its story straight and its commentary rehearsed and ready.

At 10:04 a.m., Stephanie Beck, an assistant deputy minister in Global Affairs, sent an e-mail to Canadian ambassadors around the world.

“As tragic as the attack in Salisbury was, we view this as just the latest in a series of aggressive actions by the Russian government against Western democracies and our European allies,” Ms. Beck wrote, urging the ambassadors to “share Canada’s decision with officials in your capitals.”

The group e-mail included a list of talking points, including:

  • “Canadians believe strongly that a stable, predictable international order is in our national interest and that it helps foster peace and prosperity."
  • “The likelihood that Russia is culpable is deeply troubling and demands a rapid and effective response.”
  • “These measures are targeted at individuals who have or who may seek to use their diplomatic status to undermine Canada’s security and democracy.”

By 11:24 a.m., according to internal department e-mails, government communications staff were working on their prepared “media lines” to address questions from journalists. The script shows how tightly the department sought to limit the flow of information.

Q: When was the last time a Russian diplomat was expelled?

A: Global Affairs Canada cannot comment.

Q: Names and titles of expelled diplomats?

A: We cannot provide this information due to the Privacy Act.

Q: Are Canada’s actions related to attempted Russian interference in democratic processes?

A: We cannot address the particular cases due to the Privacy Act.

Q: Will Russia retaliate and expel Canadian diplomats?

A: We cannot speculate on Russia’s potential actions.

If pressed on this last question, government spokespeople were instructed to elaborate, but only slightly, providing the following statement, on background only: “We have previously seen Russia respond in an ostensibly reciprocal fashion to expulsions of their intelligence personnel by expelling bona fide diplomats from foreign embassies in Russia. While this would be unfortunate, we would not be surprised if Russia decides to do so again.”

In fact, Canada was already preparing for exactly that outcome behind the scenes. Everyone knew the unwritten rules they were playing by.

Staff at the department of Foreign Affairs were already assembling a spreadsheet titled “Diplomatic Responses to Salisbury Incident,” tracking the growing number of expulsions ordered against Russia. There would be more than 150 from nearly 30 countries, making it the largest-ever co-ordinated mass expulsion of Russian agents. Soon, they would begin tallying up Russia’s retaliation.

On March 27, Mr. Kur sent Ottawa another classified e-mail, saying that he had “commenced preparations for a likely group expulsion” of diplomats from Moscow.

“All [Canadian diplomats] are now being provided with a checklist of administrative procedures we have developed internally to prepare for the possibility of expulsion. These procedures reflect the lessons we learned in 2014/15 (which are still fresh in my memory) along with the recent experience of our UK colleagues,” Mr. Kur wrote.

Among the plans were “counselling and other mental-health and well-being support for expelled staff and their families.”

The friction was about to be felt at the Canadian embassy in Moscow.

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Canada's ambassador to Russia John Kur leaves the Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow on March 30, 2018.VASILY MAXIMOV/Getty Images


When Good Friday came, Mr. Kur’s hunch proved right. It was a holiday back home in Canada, but not in Russia. The ambassador was summoned to the ministry of foreign affairs in Moscow and was informed that four Canadian diplomats would have to leave. Mr. Kur was one of about two dozen diplomatic chiefs from around the world who had been called to a meeting of that sort.

“They were handed notes of protest and told that the Russian Federation declared persona non grata the relevant number of diplomats from these countries working in diplomatic missions in Russia,” said a statement issued by the Russian Federation.

The moves came “in response to their unjustified expulsions of Russian diplomats based on Britain’s proof-free allegations of Russia related to the Skripal case.”

Tit for tat. That’s how it went.

Mr. Kur told Ottawa in an internal e-mail that the government may want to consider “responsive messaging” to Russia, along these lines: “In the coming days, we will analyze the steps taken by Russia against Canada and our allies, and we will carefully consider next steps.”

As he strode away from the Russian ministry that day, Mr. Kur passed a large hammer and sickle adorning the wall of the stone building.

The Soviet icon, much like the tactics at play between the two countries, appeared to have survived the Cold War unscathed.

Back in Ottawa, communications staff prepared a new public statement on the Russian response.

“This was not unexpected,” it said.

Though Canada had just expelled several diplomats suspected of being intelligence agents, it wouldn’t be long before a new group would arrive to take their place.

Russia and Britain reached a deal in late December to replace roughly half of their expelled diplomats. At some point Ottawa and Moscow will hold similar talks.

Though diplomatic expulsions are effective political tools, and are great for purging suspected spies, they come with a distinct downside. The expelled diplomats are often known to the government, which has spent time tracking their activities and determining if they are involved in espionage. By comparison, little is known about their incoming replacements.

It’s what Mr. Wark calls the “counterintelligence cost” of the expulsion strategy.

“Ultimately the Russians will try and replace these people with others… So a country’s counterintelligence service – in our case CSIS – has to start from scratch in identifying spy operatives and figuring out what they are up to,” Mr. Wark said.

“The game never ends.”

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