It seems that every couple of months we are treated to more news of Russian spies being identified and deported from various countries, signifying either that Russian spies have become remarkably inept, or, more likely, it’s a sign of sheer volume and growth of Moscow’s espionage program. Just last week, the British discovered and expelled a Russian diplomat accused of spying, which followed shortly after the Ekaterina Zatuliveter fiasco. We need no reminding of the misadventures of Anna Chapman and the “desperate housewives” deep cover crew in the U.S.
So it should come as no surprise to see the main Spanish newspaper El Pais reporting another tit-for-tat expulsion of Spanish diplomats from Russia last week in retaliation for spies deported more than a month ago. So why did we not hear about the original discovery of Russian spies by the Spanish? According to the BBC, “Spain’s respected newspaper El Pais said the Spanish government had not publicised its expulsions last month because it did not want to spoil the forthcoming events,” with reference to the upcoming “Year of Spain in Russia” and “Year of Russia in Spain,” as well as a visit by the royal family.
Self-censorship out of fear is deplorable on its own, but this political cobardía is mirrored on behalf of Spanish officials, who appear to be walking on eggshells in a desperate effort not to offend Russia for having discovered a couple of spies.
When Russia expelled diplomatic attache Ignacio Cartagena and first secretary Borja Cortes-Breton, who were actually involved in planning of the Year of Spain in Russia, from Spain’s Moscow Embassy, Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez displayed profound nonchalance. Keeping in mind that this is the first expulsion of spies exchanged by these two countries in the 33 years since relations were reestablished, the ministry’s statement couldn’t have been more circumspect – even avoiding the term “expulsion.”
According to El Pais (our translation and our emphasis):
The version of the Spanish statement given to some media (for example, to Agence France Press) declares that Russia’s reaction was “natural” and that they took “reciprocal action in making two counterparts leave.” The Ministry did not complain nor condemn the forced “exit” of the two spaniards despite the fact that, unlike the Russian diplomats, neither of them participated in espionage activities. The political attache, who in practice was the number three man at the Embassy, was much more involved in the preparation of various cultural events.
Russia’s choice of important, actual working diplomats such as Cartagena and Crotes-Breton instead of lower level Embassy functionaries has raised some speculations that the Russians were still smarting from the WikiLeaks revelation that the Spanish prosecutor and mafia-hunter Jose Grinda Gonzalez told U.S. officials that the Russian government essentially functioned as part of and an appendage of a massive criminal organization. The presence of Russian mafia in Spain is a well known and growing problem, most dramatically illustrated by the 2008 arrest of 20 high ranking bosses of the Tambov-Malyshev crime family.
But the latest spy scandal is not the first time that Spain has sought to cover up and hide Russia’s espionage. There was the arrest and then closed trial about a year ago of double agent Roberto Flórez García, who was discovered to have sold $200,000 worth of state secrets to Moscow. He was convicted of treason and given a reduced sentence of nine years in prison, but the government did a very good job burying the story and continuing to attend various potemkin Kremlin-organized events such as the Yaroslavl conference to lend support to the authoritarian “democracy” model.
My friends in Spain chalk this one up to what they call “la gran gilipollez” of Spanish foreign policy – the great jackass-ness. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and FM Jimenez have put themselves in the business of manufacturing excuses. When they discover that Hugo Chavez is providing safe haven and training to seriously dangerous members of ETA, they politely pretend like it’s no big deal – and even go out of their way to declare that Venezuela has no political prisoners. When Cuba restricts the travel rights of dissidents, Jimenez talks about the need for reflection. When Morocco commits genocide in the Western Sahara, Zapatero simply demures, while on issues of global importance such as human rights, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism, he is simply at a loss. Other than some notoriety for their vocal opposition to recognition of Kosovo (thanks to the Basques, Spain should be a natural ally of Georgia?), the biggest criticism of Spanish foreign policy is that it does not exist, having created such a low profile that isolationism is interpreted as cowardice – hence “la gran gilipollez.”
So the signal to the Russians is that they can continue to spy and do whatever they want in Europe, with the assurance that no matter what happens we can count on the Spanish to apologize for our indiscretions and minimize the damage to the relationship. If there were ever a Gerhard Schroeder prize for appeasement, I think we may have a winner.