The Tensions Beneath the Moscow Spy Scandal

The caper comes amidst warming relations with Russia, highlighting lasting challenges.

So far, the controversy over the Russia’s detention and expulsion of U.S. diplomat Ryan Christopher Fogle on spying charges seems likely to pass without significant damage to U.S.-Russian relations or to U.S. national interests. While the story has received extensive coverage in Russian media—and some reports in state media appear calculated to portray the United States quite unfavorably—senior officials, including President Vladimir Putin’s top foreign-policy aide and Russia’s foreign minister, have downplayed the case. Their U.S. counterparts have also responded cautiously. Nevertheless, the melodrama provides a useful opportunity to reflect on ties between Washington and Moscow.

First, some important facts. U.S. officials have not denied that Fogle was attempting to recruit Russian security-services personnel. Moreover, following a classified Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Committee Chair Senator Dianne Feinstein said that she was “embarrassed” by the affair—which certainly implies that Feinstein thinks Fogle was up to something in Moscow. (Whether the Senator, who also complained about Fogle’s “tradecraft,” should have commented at all is a separate question.)

Many have speculated that Fogle was set up by Russian security services, which appears to be the case given what has now been reported in the media. Russian television broadcasts have aired a purported telephone call from Fogle to the person he was trying to recruit requesting a meeting and promising money. Likewise, Russian accounts refer to security personnel waiting nearby for Fogle to make contact with his target before moving in. The question is whether Russia’s counterintelligence agencies had been monitoring Fogle and simply decided to expose him or, conversely, whether they trapped him by encouraging him to think that he had successfully recruited a source.

And there are many other questions. Among the more trivial is whether Fogle was really sneaking around Moscow with the curious assortment of low-tech spy gear that Russian officials claimed to have found on him. Some have dismissed this as so implausible as to be almost certainly fake, while others have argued that the tools of yesteryear may actually frustrate many modern-day surveillance methods. In the end, what he had or didn’t have in his bag is secondary, though if Russian officials did plant the wigs, cash or other items for dramatic effect, their response would look somewhat harsher than otherwise.

More important, why did Russian officials choose to make Fogle’s case so public and then insist that it was unlikely to affect U.S.-Russia relations? The official explanation for this is that Moscow had already asked the United States to stop trying to recruit its intelligence officers—which seems like a silly and unrealistic request, since Russian agencies seem unlikely to halt similar steps in the United States—and that officials were frustrated after handling a similar case quietly earlier this year. The real message is probably a simpler one: “don’t mess with us.” Top officials may have been especially motivated to communicate this after feeling that Washington has targeted Russia’s government by supporting radical opposition groups and threatening their overseas banking and travel with the Magnitsky Act. It seems unlikely that the affair was a spontaneous one or that senior officials were unaware until afterward.

On the U.S. side, why would American intelligence officials authorize Fogle to do what he apparently did just one week after sending the FBI Director to Moscow in search of information on the Boston terrorist attacks and a week before a rare visit to Washington by Nikolai Patrushev, a Putin confidant who is head of the country’s Security Council and a former top intelligence official? Was Fogle’s mission really so urgent that he had to pursue his potential source this week rather than at some other time? Or was Fogle acting without close supervision? In an administration where no one in authority seems to know what the Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service are doing inside the United States, anything may be possible.

Stepping back from the two governments, it is telling that over twenty years since the Soviet Union ceased to exist, a relatively trivial case of alleged espionage can reactivate moldy media clichés so swiftly. This has been apparent in both Russian and U.S. press reports, but American reporters and editors have fewer excuses for it—particularly in view of their greater independence and their at times self-righteous pride at having high professional standards. In what way would security officials in Moscow or Washington have to arrest and deport an accused spy to avoid having the incident described as a “Soviet-style episode,” as the Washington Post characterized Fogle’s case in an early report? Perhaps they should arrest only by appointment, coordinating with the other side in advance? In fairness to the Post, this is, of course, just one example. But American journalists who are so careful in how they refer to people illegally crossing U.S. borders could do worse than to think about how they describe today’s U.S.-Russia spying, which probably has many different goals than its Cold War antecedent.