It seems I can’t get away from spooks, even if the pendulum has swung somewhat. For my first column, I talked about the—limited—options for intelligence cooperation between Moscow and Washington. And then along came alleged US spy Ryan Fogle and, we are told, his wig collection, his compass and his million-dollar-deal.
Is the hapless Mr Fogle a spy? I don’t know and, as is standard practice, the CIA isn’t saying either way. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me. We haven’t yet had a good alternative answer as to what he was doing meeting an alleged Federal Security Service (FSB) officer out in the Moscow’s southern suburbs at midnight: Akademik Pilyugin Street is not exactly a nightlife hotspot. Third secretary political is the kind of inoffensive posting that could well be used for a junior spy working under official cover and I could not help but feel it a strange coincidence that he apparently used to live in McLean, Virginia, the upscale township just down the road from the CIA.
On the other hand, there is certainly more to this than meets the eye. First of all, the paraphernalia. Wigs? Well, maybe: suspected intelligence officers may well be under surveillance and sometimes old-fashioned methods like a wig or a reversible jacket can help shake off watchers. An atlas of Moscow and a compass? I suppose it’s not wholly impossible; it’s a big city and using your cellphone’s map and GPS apps invites electronic location-finding. But the compass, a staple of 1990s foreigners stumbling around the outskirts of this not-always-friendly city, makes much less sense now that street signs are more common and lights more often working. Besides, Fogle had been living and working in Moscow since spring 2011 and Obruchevsky district—where the meeting was held—is no maze.
The real show-stopper for me was the letter, written with all the flair and accuracy of the worse kind of spam email, that offered $100,000 a year up to a million for “long-term cooperation.” First of all, these are pretty extreme sums; not impossible if the potential source is of the absolute highest value, but rare. More to the point, it beggars belief that a trained spy would be caught with such a compromising document. Yes, sometimes sources being paid for information—and these days most spies are recruited for coin, not conviction—are required to sign receipts, both for internal accounting purposes (after all, there can be quite a temptation if you’re handling large amounts of “black” money and disbursing it in envelopes in furtive meetings…) or else as a means of maintaining leverage. But a letter like this one does no good and potentially a great deal of harm.
Is Fogle a dupe, either an innocent diplomat or the fall-guy sent by more senior officers into what turned out to be a trap? Possibly. Is he just one of the dumber CIA spooks around? Not all that likely: Moscow is an important and also “hard” target, and on the whole a posting for the smarter agents. But he could have been under pressure to recruit—case officers’ careers are made and broken by the number and quality of their agents—and decided to take a foolish chance. Or was he precisely what Moscow claims? Quite likely, even though I still wonder whether the letter and the like was added in order to make the whole case more striking, rather more televisual than just pictures of some guy in a baseball cap.
After all, that is what is important here. Is it news that the Americans spy on the Russians? Of course not: near-enough everyone spies on near-enough everyone else. Is it news that the CIA would seek agents inside the FSB? Quite the opposite: where better to have them?
What is news is that this became news, that Moscow decided to make such a big splash of it. The story was broken on the RT TV channel and since then has been lovingly detailed and dissected in not just the Russian but the international media. After all, this is a cute story and for the journalists, it offers lots of easy laughs (the wigs!) and the usual first-rate opportunities to dust off the old clichés, not least the tried-and-rested “From Russia with…” formulation.
Of course, there was an aspect of comfortable ritual here, and not a little roleplay. The Russians could claim to be shocked, shocked that the CIA could stoop so low as to try and recruit agents in Moscow. The more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger shtick could be balanced by outrage that this happened after the promises for better intelligence sharing after the Boston bombing and Kerry’s recent visit to Moscow, especially because the FSB officer was apparently a North Caucasus specialist. And there could even be the obligatory conspiratorial hint that elements within the CIA were ignoring the White House and running their own little cold war.
The Americans, of course, are hobbled by their inability to confirm or deny anything, as well as their desire not to jeopardize their joint investigation of the potential radicalization of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in Dagestan. But they are also smarting, not least given the timing of the breaking of the story, right in the middle of ambassador Mike McFaul’s latest quixotic outreach effort, a question and answer twitterfest. The Kremlin likes to paint the easy-going Russophile McFaul as some sinister agent of revolution; I can’t think of anything more guaranteed to make him into one than the sustained campaign of petty and spiteful humiliations with which he has been greeted.
Nonetheless, the real significance of this case is political. When counter-intelligence agencies identify a foreign spy, especially one working under official cover, their impulse is generally to watch rather than act: see whom the spy meets and recruits. After all, if you make them persona non grata and throw them out of the country—as has happened to Fogle—then sooner or later a new, unknown spy gets moved in. Even if you do throw someone out, then usually that will be done quietly, not least to avoid tit-for-tat retaliation. Indeed, it has since emerged that in January the Russians did just that, expelling alleged CIA agent Benjamin Dillon (coincidentally another third secretary).
A warning to the Americans? Maybe. It may have been a reminder to Washington that improved security cooperation is a wholly pragmatic exchange and should not be taken as a sign that Moscow will be any less fierce in defense of its own interests. But it seems unlikely that the State Department currently harbors any such illusions, not least given the Russians’ determination to send S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Syria despite having allowed Kerry to leave with the impression they might not.
Instead, this is much more likely to have been primarily for domestic consumption. Ever since the ill-fated “castling” in September 2011, the regime has seen its legitimacy crumbling. Its main strengths today are apathy and the disunity and unprofessionalism of the opposition rather than much real enthusiasm. It speaks for itself that recent polls have seen trust in the elite fall, such that a majority see the dominant United Russia bloc as the “Party of Crooks and Thieves.”
What is worse than a crook or a thief, though? A traitor, and thus one of the primary ways in which the Kremlin appears to be trying to re-legitimize itself—or at least delegitimize its critics—is to present them as dupes or pawns of unfriendly foreign powers. Hence the move to brand NGOs with any outside funding as “Foreign Agents,” the regular hints about anti-corruption leader Alexei Navalny being a US agent, and ultra-leftist Sergei Udaltsov being presented as a Georgian-backed subversive.
But there is also one other domestic factor worth noting. The FSB, Putin’s own former service and once one of the dominant forces within the “deep state” of the inner elite, has been quiet of late. The oprichniki of Alexander Bastrykin’s Investigative Committee (SK) have been leading the charge, whether against the opposition, or corruption in the government, or even abusive child-care workers. Bastrykin—a man with few friends and fewer scruples—has staked his career on empire-building the SK and in the process has squarely parked his tanks on the FSB’s lawn. They have already struck back, leaking the story of his threatening a journalist during an infamous “walk in the woods.” Now they may well also be trying to find ways to demonstrate to the one man who counts, Vladimir Putin, that they, not the SK, are still the real guardians of Russian security.
This is not going to lead to some new cold war, nor will it derail the new security cooperation, which is so clearly in both the Russian and US interest. However, when the Kremlin begins to define itself in terms of its enemies, when it begins to invest paranoia as politics and when struggles between secret policemen begin to define the national and international agendas, then this is a depressing time to be a Russia-watcher.