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Were the Spies Who Operated for Years in American Suburbia Betrayed by a Mole in Their Own Service?
Ten alleged Russian agents were arrested in the United States and charged with “deep cover” intelligence gathering on Sunday, only two days after President Dmitry Medvedev completed his tour of the country. Back in Moscow some top Russian officials already suspect the spy bust was timed deliberately to undermine U.S.-Russian relations by opponents of the “reset.” Meanwhile in the United States the Republican Party will look to exploit the finding in campaigning against the Obama administration. So how big a setback is this scandal for the recent phase of warmer U.S.-Russian relations?
Ten alleged Russian spies were arrested and charged on Sunday with “long-term, deep cover” operations on United States territory. An eleventh person who had been on the run using a Canadian passport was detained this afternoon in Cyprus. He is thought to be the final member of the spy ring.
All eleven are charged with “conspiring to act as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation within the United States,” punishable by up to five years in prison, and nine of them have been charged with “conspiracy to commit money laundering,” which carries a 20-year sentence.
The spies from the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, were gathering intelligence on nuclear weapons, arms control positions, Iran, political changes in parties, and leadership changes within the CIA, according to documents drawn up over the course of a “multiyear” FBI investigation.
The SVR agents were working under false identities, often as couples, and had been living in the United States since the 1990s. To minimize contact between members of the spy ring, handlers communicated with operatives via closed wireless networks. The U.S. Department of Justice Web site details how one Russian agent, known as Anna Chapman, was seen “on multiple occasions” “in the vicinity” of “Russian government official number one” - presumably the handler. Chapman was eventually caught on June 26 in an FBI sting operation, where an American agent known as “UC-1,” posing as a Russian consulate employee, arranged a meeting with Chapman to help her with technical difficulties that Chapman was experiencing with her laptop.
One message directed to a field agent, but apparently intercepted by the FBI after it left “Moscow Center” (the apparent alias for the SVR headquarters), reads: “You were sent to the United States for a long-term service trip. Your education, your bank accounts, car, house, etc. – all these serve one goal: to fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policy making circles in the United States and send intels (intelligence) to C (center).”
A retired SVR officer, who requested anonymity, told Russia Profile that “deep cover” field agents usually never know each other, meaning that the FBI must have a mole working from Moscow to have made a bust of this scale. “If one deep undercover agent gets arrested, it's a failure, if 11 deep undercover agents get arrested, it's a betrayal here, at the Center,” he said.
Less than a week ago Medvedev and president Obama were eating hamburgers in a Washington diner during Medvedev’s tour of the United States. Russia’s five foot four president cut an impressive PR-savvy figure during the America tour, as he won pledges from Obama on Russia’s speedy accession to the WTO, received the first ever new iPhone 4, opened a Twitter account, and delivered a surprisingly disarming “hasta la vista” impression of the Terminator-turned-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on his trip to California.
Two days later Medvedev’s trip has certainly been overshadowed, but whether the scandal will actually undermine the recent phase of warmer of Russian-U.S. relations is still unclear, said Anatol Lieven, a professor of international relations at King’s College London. “It all depends on the impact that the governments want it to have. These things happen fairly often and the question is the response,” he said. If Washington responds with a series of diplomatic expulsions, and Moscow responds tit-for-tat, then it could escalate, he said. “If the Obama administration does not expel Russian agents working under diplomatic cover – that will be a real sign that the Americans don’t want to build this up into a big thing.”
Meanwhile in Russia the timing of the spy scandal is being heavily scrutinized. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had not been kept in the loop and did so with a dose of trademark sarcasm. “They have not explained to us what is going on. I hope they will,” Lavrov told journalists during his Middle East tour. “The only thing I can say is that the timing was chosen with particular care.”
The Deputy Head of the State Duma Security Committee Nikolai Kolesnikov was even more explicit. Kolesnikov said it was “no coincidence” that the bust occurred only two days after Medvedev had completed his trip to America, RIA Novosti reported. “Unfortunately, in America there are people who still have Cold War mentalities and double standards. That’s why the warming, which has taken place since the coming to power of the young presidents, whose actions have led to the constructive development of all forms of relations…to put it mildly, is inadequate,” he said.
But Alexander Rahr, program director of Russia and Eurasia at the German Council on Foreign Relations, played down the idea that it was in some way purposefully carried out to derail relations. “The reset is continuing. Relations between Russia and the United States were never so good under President George Bush. Not everyone likes this in the United States, and not everybody likes it in Russia. But it would be far-fetched to say that this spy scandal has been artificially organized by forces on one or the other sides who want to spoil this,” said Rahr, adding that it would nonetheless be a “test of the ‘reset’.”
Lieven was more guarded and said there was “perhaps” something in Lavrov’s insinuations, adding of course that it was still “pure speculation.” But Obama’s opponents will try to capitalize, said Lieven. “In America undoubtedly there will be an attempt by the republicans and anyone who is opposed either to the Obama administration, or to the attempt to improve U.S.-Russian relations, to blow this up into a scandal,” he said. Obama has been eager to distance himself from the bust and an administration source told the New York Times that he is “unhappy” with the timing.
Rahr said what was most peculiar about the story was that it involved political espionage, rather than industrial or military. “It’s a strange story – for me it’s hard to believe that Russia is seriously engaged in political spying,” he said. “I can imagine that this is not state-sponsored espionage but maybe even some attempt to blackmail or form a pro-Russian business society or business lobby in the United States,” said Rahr, adding that there could be more damage to relations done if the trail does end up leading back to Russian officials after the court hearings, which began today.
Several countries have recently complained about increasing Russian spy activity on their territory, which has targeted above all the industry and technology sectors. Last week the Czech Republic’s intelligence service released its 2009 roundup that noted concerted attempts by Russian companies to penetrate the Czech energy market with the help of Russian intelligence gathering missions. “In terms of coverage, intensity, aggressive nature and quantity of operations, the Russian intelligence services have no rivals in the territory of the Czech Republic,” the report reads. Yesterday a German Interior Ministry report noted – and not for the first time – that Russian industrial espionage in Germany is more prevalent than that of any other country with only the exception of China.
The retired FSB officer told Russia Profile that all countries engage in espionage such as the type being seen in the scandal, even on the territory of their allies. Meanwhile the manifesto of the SVR, posted on its Web site, claims to have toned down its activities. “If during the period of confrontation between the West and East, spying took place in practically all countries where there were American and NATO country special services, then nowadays the SVR operates only in those regions where Russia has genuine and not imaginary interests.”
Whether genuine or imaginary, detractors of the reset will try to stoke tensions. Nonetheless, the administrations have the final say. “The scandal is in the eye of the beholder – in the eye of the government. We have to see what the U.S. administration and the Russian administration do next,” said Lieven.
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