Commentary Magazine


In Putin’s World, Everyone’s a Spy

The end of the Cold War brought about an attitude adjustment in American culture toward several aspects of the tense, decades-long conflict with the Soviet Union. That adjustment is worth keeping in mind with today’s report that the Russian successor to the KGB has detained an American accused of spying for the CIA, because it’s doubtful the post-Cold War change was more pronounced on any subject than the spy game. Where once Americans saw Russian spies access the highest reaches of the government and couldn’t help but wonder what other walls might have ears, the U.S.-Russian espionage trade suddenly became either goofy or romanticized–sometimes both.

How else to explain the reaction to the discovery of Russian spies living in America 2010? They were either incompetent or making fools of their own bosses back in Moscow by sending back “intel” they had culled from the pages of American newspapers. And of course they were all satellites revolving around Anna Chapman, the redheaded Russian spy who, upon repatriation in Russia, immediately launched a second career as a model and television show host. In one fashion show, Chapman traversed the catwalk flanked by men dressed as Secret Service agents–and this was playfully reproduced by U.S. newspapers. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.

But that, wrote Edward Lucas, the longtime Economist scribe and Eastern Europe expert, is “an oddly complacent approach.” Of course a sleeper agent should appear harmless and their activities mundane if they are ever to get close enough to gain valuable information. He continued:

That Russia is running such agents in America, Britain and Europe (and elsewhere) should be cause for alarm. Imagine that someone who loathes you has a key to your front door. It will be little comfort if he has not yet got round to burning your house down, stealing your valuables, or planting drugs. The worry is that he could.

The difference in post-Cold War attitudes, however, is only evident on one side of the Atlantic. Vladimir Putin continues to behave as if he thinks the U.S. and Russia are locked a global struggle. As such, while to many in the U.S. no one, not even an admitted Russian spy, is an actual Russian spy, to Putin everyone is an American agent working clandestinely to undermine his government. So perhaps the FSB caught an American spy, but as with Russian warnings about the Boston Marathon bombers, there is a credibility issue when a crime syndicate starts identifying enemies.

In December 2011, as Putin’s party prepared to instigate massive election fraud on the eve of parliamentary voting, he stepped up a campaign against Russia’s high-profile election monitoring group Golos, calling them traitors and accusing them of “interfering with elections on behalf of foreign governments.” Then came the push to designate human rights groups like Memorial, who receive some grants from agencies like USAID, as registered “foreign agents.” And if you’re a foreign corporation, buying into a major Russian firm–nominally state-owned or not–can be dangerous for everyone involved.

There is also the timing. Putin’s government has been open about its intention to retaliate for slights–real or perceived. The retaliations usually take one of two forms: the classic Soviet-era “whataboutism,” in which the subject is turned to the chutzpah and hypocrisy of the West, or tactics made to undermine Western trustworthiness.

So when the U.S. Congress finally went around President Obama’s objections and Secretary of State (at the time Senator) John Kerry’s stonewalling to pass a bill targeting Russian human rights abusers, the Kremlin responded with its “Guantanamo List” of Americans banned from Russia for their own supposed human rights crimes. That was an example of the whataboutism whose charm has always possessed some appeal to the self-flagellating Western left.

And today’s announcement of the arrest–and the array of photos released by the Russian government trumpeting the catch–comes at such a time. In fairness, here is the FSB’s side of today’s story:

According to information provided by the Russian security service to Russian news services, FSB agents caught Fogle in possession of “special technical devices,” typewritten instructions for the recruit, a “large sum” of cash and various means of disguise….

“The CIA has made several attempts lately to recruit officers of Russian law enforcement services and agencies, which were tracked and monitored by the FSB’s counterintelligence service,” an FSB spokesman told the Interfax news agency.

Yet it comes on the heels of three important stories of U.S.-Russian diplomacy. First was last week’s meeting between John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, centered on a renewed push to get Russia’s cooperation to end the Syrian civil war and remove Bashar al-Assad from power. The pleas had echoes of last year’s efforts by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to shame Russia into taking control of a conflict on whose sidelines the U.S. also sat.

The second story followed within a day of the Kerry-Lavrov meeting, when word came that Russia was planning to sell ground-to-air missile systems to Assad to stave off Western air attacks. And third was the story Max referred to yesterday: the Washington Post’s report laying out extent to which Assad was turning the tide and demonstrating the key role Russia is playing in keeping Assad in power. The story was doubly damaging to U.S. credibility because of the conclusions some are starting to draw about the Obama administration’s decision not to effectively take sides early on. The Post reporter who wrote the story, Liz Sly, tweeted out a link to her story with the following description:

Assad gaining the advantage in Syria. Did the US dither on Syria long enough to let him win? Was that the point?

That is of course speculation, but it’s worth noting that to those on the ground, that’s the way it looks. Regardless, Russia had a bit of a PR issue on its hands. The American secretary of state came begging for diplomatic scraps from Putin’s table, and then news broke making Putin look like he was operating in bad faith. So today comes his response: how can he trust the Americans when they are pretending to beseech him while attempting to spy on him?

Still, the problem for Kerry and the Obama administration’s architects of the spectacularly failed “reset” with Putin remains that the volume of stories calling Putin’s reliability into question far exceeds the complaints about American snooping. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Russian authorities withheld what were characterized as “the most important in a series of missed signals between the two countries” leading up to the Boston Marathon bombing. It is true that the combination of Putin’s history of inventing enemies of the state and the FBI’s need to excuse missing warning signs means we should take attempts to shift blame to the Russians with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, the evidence the FSB withheld from the FBI does seem to be valuable, and there does not seem to be any obvious justification for withholding that information.

It should be noted that the cratering of U.S.-Russia relations coincides with years of one-sided American concessions to Putin, putting the lie to the always incongruous belief that American weakness will be rewarded with compassion. Kerry may be the perfect diplomat to carry out such a strategy, but that makes neither the policy less imprudent nor the diplomat less inept than they both quite obviously remain.

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