The U.S. government announced it will replace all Russian nationals holding supervisory positions at its embassy and consulates in Russia with American citizens. The move, coming at a time when Russia-U.S. relations are at a new low, is considered an attempt by the U.S. to reduce its dependence on Russian staff, while some speculate the decision could be aimed at creating a network of undercover agents within the embassy.
The move is part of the new 2015 Intelligence Authorization Act (H.R. 4681), introduced by U.S. Congressman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., in May and approved by Congress Dec. 9. The act, expected to be signed by U.S. President Barack Obama before year-end, dictates that the staff swap be completed by the end of 2015, Susan Phalen, the communications director for the House Intelligence Committee, told Izvestia, a Russian newspaper.
“The Secretary of State shall ensure that, not later than one year after the date of the enactment of this Act, every supervisory position at a United States diplomatic facility in the Russian Federation shall be occupied by a citizen of the United States who has passed, and shall be subject to, a thorough background check,” according to the Act.
The act requires the U.S. Secretary of State to prepare a plan for Congress, which will take measures to reduce its reliance on local staff at such government facilities in foreign countries. However, experts said the move reflects U.S. authorities' growing suspicion of Russian citizens.
“They [the authorities] may assume that some of the Russian staff might leak information to Russian intelligence,” Yuri Rogulev, head of the Franklin Roosevelt Center of American Studies at Moscow State University, told Izvestia. “The reform will lead to an increase [in the number of] U.S. citizens in the embassy, which will allow the U.S. to create an agent network undercover within the embassy.”
Section 314 of the Act also requires U.S. diplomatic centers in Russia, and any other country that shares a land border with the Russian Federation, to have a “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.”
While Congresswoman Jackson Lee, D-Texas, told Izvestia that the replacement of the Russian staff with Americans is meant to improve the security of U.S. intelligence, Rogulev said the move was also made to deal with growing threats from Russian hackers.
“Russian hackers are the most dangerous for them [the U.S. intelligence],” Izvestia quoted Rogulev as saying. “From the standpoint of industrial and military espionage, they are acting even more actively. The U.S. authorities continue to believe that Russia bears a threat to information [security].”
Since the conflict in eastern Ukraine began in April, Kiev and the West have accused Russia of involvement in the crisis, hurting Russia's relations with the West. And, over the past few months, the U.S. and the European Union have hit Russia with several rounds of sanctions in response to Moscow’s alleged involvement in Ukraine's internal affairs, even as Russia has repeatedly denied its involvement in the conflict.