Site map
0The virtual community for English-speaking expats and Russians
  Main page   Make it home   Expat card   Our partners   About the site   FAQ
Please log in:
To register  Forgotten your password?   
  Survival Guide   Calendars
  Phone Directory   Dining Out
  Employment   Going Out
  Real Estate   Children
   October 1
News Links
Business Calendar
Phone Directory
 Latest Articles
 Archived Articles
Analysis & Opinion
09.07.10 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Could The Spy Scandal Undo The Reset?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan Burger, Edward Lozansky, Igor Torbakov

The most dramatic spy scandal in decades culminated in a Cold-War style exchange of prisoners in Vienna on Friday. The swap of the ten Russian agents arrested in the United States for four Western spies held in Russian prisons has been worked out with the speed and clarity that could only have been achieved with directions from the very top. After U.S. prosecutors dropped money laundering charges, once the ten defendants had pleaded guilty to acting as agents of a foreign state, President Dmitry Medvedev personally pardoned the four Russians accused of spying for the West. So could the spy scandal really derail the “reset,” or have both sides invested too much in the success of the current agenda to let it go bust over a spy story?

The smoothness of the operation suggests a mutual determination in Dmitry Medvedev’s Kremlin and Barack Obama’s White House to make sure the achievements of the “reset” would not be overturned by the spy scandal, which erupted when a decade-long FBI investigation culminated just over a week ago in the arrests of 11 people in New York, Boston and Washington DC areas. The suspects, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, had worked for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) as clandestine agents, known as “illegals” in intelligence parlance.

The timing in the arrests of perhaps the largest Russian spy network in the United States was particularly awkward, coming just two days after President Dmitry Medvedev’s departure from Washington, where he and U.S. President Barack Obama had bonded over burgers and constructive discussions on U.S.-Russian cooperation to deal with the world’s burning issues.

The White House and the Kremlin rushed to play down the significance of the arrests and immediately launched “rescue operations” to shield the Obama-Medvedev reset in U.S.-Russian relations from the potentially destructive effects of the spy scandal.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, in an unusual move, issued a statement recognizing the arrested individuals as Russian citizens who had come to the United States “in different ways” and “had not harmed” American interests. The State Department and the White House portrayed the case as a purely law-enforcement matter.
The Americans said on Wednesday that they would not expel Russian diplomats, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed the Obama administration’s commitment to pressing forward with positive changes in the relationship with Russia.

According to the New York Times, Sergei Prikhodko, Medvedev's foreign policy adviser, in a telephone call with General James Jones, Obama's national security adviser, emphasized that Moscow wanted to resolve the issue without jeopardizing positive changes in the relationship.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a meeting with former President Bill Clinton jokingly said that the American law enforcement authorities had gotten out of control in making the arrests, but then minimized the damage by saying that relations “will not suffer.”

Much of the Russian commentary suggested that the arrests were an effort by dark forces in the American government to undermine Obama's reset policy. Russia’s usually eloquent commentators among lawmakers and political analysts were specifically requested not to comment on the spy scandal.

So could the spy scandal really derail the reset, or have both sides invested too much in the success of the current agenda to let it go bust over a spy story? Is this really a ploy to undermine Obama at home? Could this weaken Obama enough politically to make him step back from his engagement of Russia and Medvedev? Would the spy scandal jeopardize the ratification of the START treaty by the U.S. Senate, or could it make congress derail the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with Russia? How would it affect Medvedev’s courtship of the United States, particularly his efforts to bring U.S. technology companies to invest in and transfer technologies to Russia? Was it worth Russia’s while to use such extensive human intelligence operations in the United States?

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

As a preamble one should note that the case of the East Shore “illegals” is not one of espionage. The designation of “Russian spies” is used for sensationalist and inflammatory purposes. Public statements by U.S. law enforcement officials accuse the arrested of failing to register as agents of a foreign government (a definition which is rather elastic – does a BBC journalist in Washington qualify in this category?)

The sorry lot arrested in this case demonstrates a profound lack of understanding in Russia of who constitutes genuine U.S. policy elites, and how these elites live and work. It is not surprising that this motley crew is jocularly called in U.S. media “the gang that could not spy straight.” True, they were not intended to be real spies; but to send a “tabloid Mata Hari” who exposes her remarkable charms on the Internet and expects to make friends and influence people at policy-making echelons is not exactly brilliant. Does anyone at the SVR know who the “Tidal Basin Bombshell” was? Her case is still a lesson for Capitol Hill, just as a certain intern is a caveat at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

As a mitigating aspect in this embarrassing episode one should note that this SVR operation was launched at least ten years ago, when Russian relations with America were tense. Once clandestine operations are launched, especially with agents settled in comfy houses in American suburbia, shutting them down and recalling the agents back to Uryupinsk or the traffic jams of Moscow may be a bit problematic.

This group of “illegals” was uncovered by the FBI as far back as ten years ago, which means that U.S. policymakers were aware of the network when they launched the “reset” initiative. Therefore, if the existence of this network did not prevent the launch of the “reset,” there is probably little cause to shut down the “reset” now, after the network has been publicly exposed. Moreover, the publicity and embarrassment caused to the Russian government by the exposure of illegal agents (and implicitly, by the utter clumsiness of the alleged perpetrators and their directors) provides advantages in the sub rosa tug-of-war that the reset process appears to be, shared junk food notwithstanding.

The “reset” is an American initiative, and therefore it is the White House that decides the future of this process. It will continue, particularly because now Russia’s hand has been weakened in world public opinion. Also, Moscow’s perception of the importance and product of the “reset” may be different than Washington’s.

If the “reset” is not very important to the global White House strategy for international relations, then there is no great need for Washington to shut the “reset” down, because of some clumsy and generally harmless (as we are told publicly) group of agents with false identities and beautiful hydrangeas.

The episode has exposed a veiled xenophobia in public statements by some U.S. speakers, aimed at Russian-speaking people residing in the United States. This is fallout that may affect millions of former Soviet citizens who arrived (quite legally) in America from the 1970s onward. Many of these former Soviet citizens have prospered and become prominent in American society, like one of the founders of Google. Will all these people now be subject to security checks?

For curious readers, the author of these comments was born in post-war Central Europe, in an expat family deprived of its national citizenship decades earlier. He was never a citizen of the Soviet Union. The only interests reflected in his commentary are truth, scientific objectivity, accuracy and fairness.

Ethan S. Burger, Senior Lecturer, Center for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law, University of Wollongong, Australia:

Generally gentlemen do not read one another’s mail, unless the potential payoffs significantly outweigh the risks and consequences of being caught. Spying by eavesdropping or via satellites is an entirely different matter and occurs more often than is commonly appreciated. In the 1990s, a small scandal erupted (if that term could be used), when the French were apparently spying on the United States. The fallout from that episode was miniscule.
Industrial spying is commonplace and is undertaken by both private persons and countries to gain greater competitiveness in the marketplace, determine whether their technology is inadequate, or to ensure that their own communications have not been compromised.

The current spy scandal raises many questions. Was the effective yield of the operation worth the likely benefits? I tend to doubt it.

Was this a rogue operation where the intelligence community acted on its own without appropriate political authorization? Unfortunately, I tend to be skeptical about this as well. The conceiving and implementation of the plan probably took considerable time and resources. If the project did not have the direct approval of Vladimir Putin, it would be more likely than not that it had his general blessing.

What did president Medvedev know and when did he know it? The revelation that Russia was conducting such an operation in the United States could not have come at a worse time. While the Obama administration may not subscribe to “linkage,” if U.S. public opinion were to be reset now it would likely return to that of the Kennedy-Johnson eras (i.e. pre-detente).

It is possible that this operation had a life of its own (analogous to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba – well-known for the incompetent manner in which it was planned and executed as well as its long-term political ramifications). The Bay of Pigs episode revealed that the U.S. intelligence community was out of control. If this is the case with respect to the present situation, there needs to be a thorough house cleaning of the Russian "intelligence" community. Unfortunately, it is not clear that this will indeed take place.

In the absence of a purge of the siloviki, any “accomplishments” of president Medvedev are likely to be viewed with suspicion or disappointment by many. One wonders whether this might have been part of a deliberate attempt by some to undermine him (as well as those elements of Russian society who see him as their best hope).
There may not be a return to the Cold War period, but without a public investigation and a major house cleaning of those holding responsible positions in the Russian government, who view the world through the prism of national security, Russia will harm the credibility of those Western politicians who might want to give it the benefit of the doubt. This might have electoral consequences in the West, bringing into power people whom the Russian leadership does not want to hold influential positions.

Recent history has shown that academics, journalists and specialists with foundations and institutes are frequently better reporters of economic, military, political, and technological developments than intelligence "professionals." Perhaps since the former tend to have greater freedom of movement and are less constrained by political considerations in their analysis.

Perhaps Russia would be better off sending its intelligence personnel to graduate school in the United States, having them read leading U.S. journals on a variety of topics or monitor high quality Web sites than engage in “hare-brain” schemes.

Unfortunately, the discovery of what seems to be an extensive spying ring could hurt president Obama politically and jeopardize important U.S.-Russian initiatives and forms of cooperation, even if they are in both countries’ interests. Since it is an election year in the U.S. for the entire House of Representatives and one third of seats in the U.S. Senate, Obama cannot afford to be seen as an appeaser of Russia in any respect, particularly if Medvedev seems to be incapable of implementing the reforms he purports to recognize as essential for modernizing the country, attracting foreign investment, and making Russia a hospitable place for skilled specialists to work. As a result, Russia will probably not develop its equivalent of the Silicon Valley.

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow, Washington, DC:

It would be naive to assume that with the end of the Cold War all intelligence activities might terminate. For one thing, there is still a deep mistrust on both sides of the East-West divide, a legacy of the past. For another, intelligence services all over the world have to somehow justify their impressive budgets. As a matter of fact, intelligence activities go on not only on the territories of potential adversaries but even on friendly ones. The effectiveness of these activities nowadays is pretty questionable, since much of the information sought by the agents is available on the Internet. Nevertheless, whether we like it or not, the attempts by Russia or the United States to plant moles in each others’ government or other important structures will continue for any foreseeable future. Besides, huge monies are being allotted for the job, and it will go on – if only to justify the expense.

These 11 men and women are hardly innocent of the charges made against them, but the timing of their arrest is very curious. Many in the media and in political circles have expressed the view that some powerful folks in Washington do not like the fast pace of U.S. - Russian rapprochement. We are told that the FBI investigation has gone on for a decade; so far no harm has been done to U.S. interests; so why launch the spy scandal precisely at this moment? Couldn't the FBI have waited a few more weeks, months or years – until at least one member of the ring carried out some authentic act of espionage?

It must be said in all fairness that opponents of friendly U.S. - Russian relations exist in both capitals. Amazingly, they are to be found not only among diehard communists or other anti-Western elements but, ironically, even among leaders of the so-called democratic opposition in Russia. Their message to the West is this: it is immoral to deal with the current Kremlin regime. If you listen to the likes of Gary Kasparov and company, the best way for the West to deal with Russia is to isolate it, expel it from the G8 and go on insisting that it was Russia that invaded Georgia in August of 2008. To cap it all, Russia most likely had a hand in downing the Polish presidential plane. According to these radicals, just shaking the hands and smiling to the Kremlin leaders is the act of betrayal of the ideas of freedom and democracy.

All those who disagree with their position and advocate better U.S. - Russian relations to meet the common global challenges are called at best naive or opportunistic, or at worst Russian agents of influence. At least this is what you can hear on the Echo of Moscow radio station or read in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta – the two icons of Russia’s opposition media.

Apparently the White House and the Kremlin have decided, thank God, that this unfortunate case should not jeopardize the "reset" process. Both sides are refraining from inflammatory rhetoric. Solid, friendly U.S. - Russian relations are too important to allow spies, their handlers and "reset" opponents in both countries to ruin all the good work that has been done so far by the Obama and Medvedev administrations.

It is extremely important that the START treaty is ratified and such important initiatives like the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, U.S. participation in the Skolkovo development, and many other mutually beneficial cooperation projects move ahead.

At the same time, it would be advisable for Washington and Moscow to quietly work behind the scenes and agree if not to completely eliminate, then at least to drastically reduce their human intelligence operations against each other. This will definitely help to build mutual trust and, by the way, reduce their budget deficits, too.

Dr. Igor Torbakov, Senior Fellow, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Helsinki:

Let’s put the things straight: rather than being a “sinister plot” by some unnamed dark forces to undermine Obama’s attempts at engaging Russia, the spy scandal has proved to be a huge embarrassment for Moscow. This is exactly why Russia’s state-controlled media sought to play down the whole wretched story. For its part, Washington isn’t keen to blow the scandal out of proportion either, with several top U.S. officials calmly reiterating that “we’re beyond the Cold War.” Now, the most recent reports about the Cold War-style spy swap only confirm the desire of both countries’ leaderships to quickly move past the scandal, lest it damages what is being touted as the “new positive trends” in Russian-U.S. relations.

But let’s face it: the arrests of ten alleged Russian “illegals” in the United States cannot derail Russian-American rapprochement simply because there isn’t yet any genuine rapprochement between the two countries. Unmasking of a bunch of foreign spooks is not a reason that can seriously sour the relationship – after all, even allies spy on each other. Spying is a symptom rather than the root cause of the problem. The real problem is a fundamental lack of trust between Russian and American policy elites that results in the unwillingness of each country to help realize the most cherished strategic objectives of the other. And this unfortunate situation will sooner or later inevitably lead to frustration on both sides – as has actually happened several times before.

At the heart of mutual mistrust is the proverbial divergence of values. That is why it is so difficult to decouple “values” and “interests,” and build a healthy bilateral relationship solely on “pragmatically understood interests.” Ultimately, the latter are defined by the former. It is the “values gap” and mistrust that make Russian foreign policy contradictory and give Russian-U.S. relations a schizophrenic quality.

As for the spy case itself, it is purely a matter for American law-enforcement agencies to deal with, as one U.S. official put it. I could not agree more. But I would like to add something: to my mind, the spying debacle should be of great interest to Russian criminal investigators as well. Many naive Western commentators have marveled at the seeming contradiction between the rather modest tasks (and downright risible deliverables) of the espionage mission and the massive funds that were spent. The fact that eight out of ten defendants were charged with conspiring to commit money laundering also suggests that there was something deeply flawed in the Russian spy tradecraft.

So what could it be? My hunch is that we’re witnessing a classic case of brazen corruption and embezzlement – the phenomenon the Russians call the “divvying up of state funds.” Over the last decade the funding for all kinds of Russian secret services increased manifold. All these services, including the External Intelligence Service (SVR) – the hapless Russian spies’ employer – function outside any public control. At the same time, as one Russian intelligence veteran told the Financial Times, “The SVR, like all departments of the former KGB, is now basically a business organization in Russia.”

The bottom line is: the spy scandal will not undo the “reset” (whatever this means) but the spreading rot it has revealed might well “undo” Russia itself.
The source
Copyright © The Moscow Expat Site, 1999-2023Editor  Sales  Webmaster +7 (903) 722-38-02