More Loathing than Fear in Russia Spy Scandal

spies07072010.jpgImagine the delirious celebrations which must have occurred last week within the editorial offices of media outlets like the New York Post, Daily News, CNN, and so many more upon receiving the news of the Department of Justice’s arrests of ten-and-a-half deep cover Russian spies.  Perplexing international intrigue? Check.  National security scare and moral panic of the enemy within? Check!  A conspiracy regarding precious metals futures?  Check. A somewhat sultry red-headed jezebel spy?  Not quite, but whatever, let’s run with it … check!  Break out the champagne – we’ve got a news story here with legs, not quite Clinton-Lewinsky, but much richer than your average foiled terrorist attack.

Despite the media enthusiasm and copious coverage of spymania minutiae, I somehow don’t really feel like the story is stimulating the American public in any meaningful way.  On the one hand, the alleged Russian spies weren’t exactly caught at the height of their intrigue – in fact, the charges are for failing to register as a foreign agent, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.  Many assume that the FBI pounced at this moment because there were other, unannounced developments which were the real cause of concern, but there was no coherent plot for the conspiracy theorists to chew on.

Considering the very real implications of this case, which in my view stand in quite sharp contradiction to the victorious claims of the reset policy, very few observers have commented on the downplay and light touch from the Obama administration.  Perhaps he was visiting Moscow for another reason, but Bill Clinton’s friendly photo shoot with Vladimir Putin had all the appearances of conciliatory staging.  The former US president happily commented that “relations between American and Russia will be getting better and better.I frequently addressed our government with request to speed up Russia’sentry into the WTO.

Judging by the reaction of the State Department, you would think the discovery and arrest of an undercover spy ring were no more important than the slightest diplomatic tiff.  White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs shucked and jived, while Phil Gordon from State Department talked about how nevertheless the two countries are moving toward “a more trusting relationship.”

Let us suffer no undue illusions – all large, powerful countries dabble in espionage, perhaps with different methods, aims, and sophistication, but more or less in equal moral standing.  It is not an outrageous discovery that the SVR had an active program in the United States – numerous former members had already written many tomes disclosing these activities.  What is very strange is the Russian reaction to these arrests.  Instead of outright denials (the most common), apologies, or plausible excuses – and despite the extremely kind and forgive-and-forget posture of the administration – the reaction was anger, outrage, and provocative vituperation

The loathing held by Russian officials toward their U.S. counterparts for exposing this seemingly clownish spy ring bears a greater relationship to the recognition of the changing role of Russian intelligence more than any issue of national security and its accompanying heavy pride.  Many analysts have lampooned the petite-bourgeoisie development of these alleged spies as revealed in the their captured communications, but in fact they were precisely performing their jobs as required:  fitting in with other Americans until their time came to be called upon.  No, they were not embedded in NASA or nuclear weapons facilities, no, they did not have access to CIA strategic secrets, but then again, Russia has relatively little to fear from these institutions. 

The modern Russian spy has much less to do with national interests, and more to do with the personal and financial interests of its leadership.  The battlefield is not the secrecy of high government office, but rather the open and ideological environment of public opinion.  It takes an enormous amount of effort to pretend to be a democracy when the country clearly isn’t one, to pretend to be an open economy when in fact the state controls remain so heavy handed, monopolistic, and lawless.  For Russia, intelligence is no longer just secrets, it is the trafficking of ideas – and this takes more than just controlled media at home and worldwide cable news broadcasts to refashion their false image … they see the need to have their agents embedded in the social dimension, influence the conversation, and shape the terms of the debate.

If the country were freed of this compulsion to convince the world that it is something that it is not, the intelligence resources would be directed elsewhere, or removed altogether in pursuit of greater prosperity and security for its people – rather than just the preservation of power of its leadership.