Heisbourg insisted there was a clear and valid distinction between a diplomat and a spy, and those being expelled from Europe will not be chosen at random but because there is evidence they are in breach of the Vienna convention, the code that governs legitimate diplomacy. As well as spying this could also involve spreading disinformation on social media. “If you spend your time sending Twitter messages insulting the government of the host nation, if you follow the ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy undertaken by Chinese diplomats, that can fall under that definition of making you persona non grata,” said Heisbourg.

Sir John Sawers, the former head of M16, last year said he suspected the west was picking up only 10% of Russia’s espionage.

The current scale of the exodus of alleged Russian spies – probably the largest single set of such expulsions in history according to the distinguished former French diplomat François Heisbourg – may also raise questions about why the west came to indulge so many Russian “diplomats” working on European soil.

By Friday, among the EU member states, only Malta, Cyprus and Hungary had so far declined to send any Russian “diplomats” packing.

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