In Russia’s Spygate Comedy, Putin Sees an Opportunity

So everybody is getting all wrapped up in yesterday’s Kommersant story, which purported to quote several anonymous Kremlin officials who leaked the identity of the turncoat spy responsible for exposing the deep-cover network of spies arrested in the United States last summer.  This double agent, named Colonel Shcherbakov, was reported to be the SVR officer in charge of Russia’s clandestine operations in the United States, and apparently defected to the U.S. just three days before the U.S.-Russia Summit.

But what really grabbed the headlines was the ominous quote from the Kremlin source, commenting that a team of Jason Bourne-esque hitmen had probably already been dispatched to take out Shcherbakov wherever he may be hiding out.  Unfortunately, with the Litvinenko murder as precedent, it’s a warning that security officials are actually going to have to take seriously.

Why the revenge plot?  You’d think they want to give Shcherbakov an award for exposing just how hapless and inept these agents were parading as desperate housewives and B-movie vixens.  But behind all the circus and comedy of the affair, it appears that the Kremlin may be making a transformational move to redefine and concentrate the state security services.

As we are waiting for the smoke to clear on this story, there’s still a great deal of skepticism as to whether this leak was just aplanned stunt, completely made up, or partially true (Medvedev has confirmed the defection).  Speaking to the Financial Times, Dmitri Simes of Nixon Center commented that the defection of a high level spy could explain the awkward timing as well as thetimid Russian response to the spy scandal. “It means they knew that this was based on newand reliable information, that this was not just a case of playingdomestic American politics. It changes the political dynamic of thestory entirely on both sides.

However the point emphasized by the Kremlin leak, and alluded to by the journalists, was that the spy scandal was to be seen as a dramatic and unforgivable failure of the SVR as a department, with scapegoat status applied to its director Mikhail Fradkov.  According to the source, there were numerous indications that something was fishy with Shcherbakov that his superiors should have picked up on – such as his daughter living in the United States for more than 10 years, and his refusal of a promotion that would have required a lie detector test.

Immediately following the article, different Duma members got to work disparaging Fradkov and the SVR, and calling for his ouster.  Gennady Gudkov called for the formation of a panel to study the intelligence organizaiton, describing the incidence of the double agent as the “moral degradation of the state’s elite who collectedtheir fortune by using their official positions. (…) The treasonundermined both Russia’s intelligence image and its future.”

Brian Whitmore at RFE/RL has a very good piece arguing that more meaningful that any betrayal or double agent, was the opportunity that these embarrassing arrests provided to Putin – the chance to have the FSB swallow up the responsibilities of the SVR.  Others disagree.  Andrei Soldatov, editor of and the author of a new book on the siloviki,says that Shcherbakov’s defection “is nota big deal” and was unlikely to trigger fundamental changes or any kind of overhaul that leads to reform.

But that’s not really the point, is it?  It’s not so much a priority to reform and improve the effectiveness of the SVR, but rather to get it under the same roof as the FSB, which would resemble what the KGB looked like before the early 1990s.  I think that it’s completely possible that the defection of this agent is “no big deal” while at the same time providing the perfect opportunity to make a big deal out of it.

Poor Fradkov – just how many times will this strawman have to perform these immaculate resignations?