The Secret Agent Brouhaha

Washington and Moscow shouldn’t let this dramatized spy ordeal affect relations.

According to mainstream media and the FBI, a major Russian spy ring has been exposed and the members arrested. The suspects are believed to have buried stashes of money and exchanged secret messages in invisible ink, swapped bags in passing at a train station, and used Wi-Fi technology as they openly learned about U.S. policy and sought out confidential information. The tabloids were also given the priceless gift of a young, dashing Russian woman who would make the Bond girls of the movies green with envy. This story is simply bizarre, but it is also banal.

Again, Hollywood and memories of the Cold War have collided. However, it will most likely stop there. Until more information is released, it should be expected that both Russia and the United States will hope this story fades away quickly—both countries have more important things to work on together.

Here in Moscow—a city that loves to gossip and endlessly speculates—opinions are mixed. If everything Western media (and the FBI) report is true, then obviously someone in Russia’s foreign intelligence should be fired. The information the alleged suspects revealed on social-networking websites is hardly work of “deep-cover agents.” And since when are “deep-cover agents” expected to use open-source information to undermine another country’s foreign-policy and security establishments? To date, all the available evidence suggests the alleged suspects could have been agents of a foreign country without the official accreditation—a possible crime, but not in the league of a major spy network breaching American security.

Then there is the opinion that this whole story is a fraud, which is quite popular here. As Moscow and Washington “reset” relations, there remain many in Russia who continue to distrust the United States. For Russians, the “reset” means that Washington and other Western capitals must accept that Russia’s national security will not be a bargaining chip to enhance the interests of others. The way these suspected spies have reported in this strange story smacks of old stereotypes about Russians that the Kremlin is very sensitive to.

It has been reported that President Barack Obama was briefed on the FBI’s impending bust before the successful visit of his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev. Nonetheless, the burger summit happened, and many view the FBI bust as a slap in the face to Moscow in the wake of a successful meeting.

But perhaps the question, more importantly, is why now? Of course there is the theory that there are those in Moscow and Washington who will always see the other country as an enemy. Indeed, many in both countries’ political establishment have a material vested interest in continuing the past adversarial relationship. However, at this point there is no real evidence they are making a comeback in the corridors of power.

Then there is the possibility, if it is assumed Russian intelligence was indeed behind this so-called spying, that it intended to shut it down, and that this would have been a nightmare for the FBI, which had invested so many resources and working hours observing a young lady’s adventures on Facebook—all the while, a truly dangerous terrorist attack almost occurred on the streets of New York.

Another theory is the Russians have a little spy story of their own to reveal and the FBI wanted to preempt this with their own sensation of hard-nosed law enforcement. This is very possible, but so is the endless speculation that always accompanies real and imagined spy stories. The fact is we will probably never really know the whole story.

Few can dismiss the awkwardness of this story in terms of timing. One theory suggests, though few will say it publicly, that the whole point was to embarrass Medvedev to the benefit of ex-president and currently Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as the next presidential election looms in 2012. This is spin-doctoring of the lowest kind. Russia’s “tandem” is far from a perfect political arrangement, though for the time being it is the best reflection of political interests in the country. It is sheer nonsense to believe “Russian spies” in America’s suburbs play into Russia’s domestic politics. Contrary to the hopes of some in Moscow and Washington, the “tandem” is alive and well—and working.

In the meantime, Russia and the United States should not get distracted from a common agenda on some of the world's most pressing issues. My guess is, after all is said and done, the alleged suspects will be slapped on the wrist for acting like an agent of a foreign country and deported—end of story. This incident doesn’t warrant a pause in the “reset.”

 

Peter Lavelle is the host of CrossTalk, a program on the Russian-government-sponsored RT television. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RT.