Nobody will confirm that any of the diplomats stepping on to the British Airways plane at Sheremetevo are operatives of the Secret Intelligence Service, of course; nor will Moscow confirm, when Britain responds (as it surely will), that the people climbing aboard Aeroflot at Heathrow are spies. But at least some of them probably will be.
This may all seem like the most colossal waste of time, money and effort. We send out our chaps (and, increasingly, chapesses), they send out theirs, both spend valuable hours opening each others' mail, then everybody gets thrown out of the country and we start all over again.
Why spy? With all the information that is so readily available, with the end of the Cold War, with the retreat from empire, why bother with all this expensive nonsense? The answer is that it is not nonsense. If anything, more should have been spent on intelligence over the past decade. It might have helped in the Gulf, in the Falklands and in Russia itself had we understood a little more of what was going on in advance.
But why spy on Russia? Because it still possesses a prodigious military capacity, and uses it in ways that concern Britain (such as its activities in Azerbaijan, where BP has extensive interests). It still has the ability to spring surprises, by threatening to pull out of important arms control treaties, for instance. Its relations with other nations, in particular China and some Middle Eastern countries, are a matter of concern. Russia is also the source of a large amount of organised crime and money laundering. And Russia, as we have been told by MI6's friends in MI5, spies on us (so we spy on them, and so on).
But there is more to this latest incident than the usual "I spy a spy" tango. We are no longer on the terrace of the Casino Royale; this is the post-Cold War world.
The expulsions have been handled in an unusually high-profile way, which means that Moscow is making a heavy-handed point to foreign intelligence agencies and governments: don't mess with us. The Russians are also making a point to their own internal agencies; that good relations with the West don't preclude the smack of firm government, on occasion. And it is also making a point to Russian voters, ahead of next month's election: this is a regime that is prepared to get tough with those rascally foreigners.
The general drift in Russian attitudes over the past two years has been to re-assert the nation's place, opposing Nato expansion, for instance, and playing an increasingly tough game in diplomatic negotiations. Since Yevgeny Primakov took over as Foreign Minister - he was formerly head of the foreign intelligence service - the intelligence agencies in Russia have got something of a new lease of life. Mr Primakov has also started to redirect foreign policy, carving out a new and more assertive role for Russia in the Middle East and Asia.
As the elections approach, and as Russia pulls itself out of the post- Soviet malaise that has bedevilled any coherent policy, that assertive trend is likely to strengthen. We have good reason to worry about Russia. It follows that this is, after all, a good time to be gleaning the best intelligence we can find on its immediate future.Reuse content