Unnumbered agents

A Foreign Ministry spokesman criticised the spy ring allegations as a throwback to the Cold War. “The timing for the arrests was chosen with particular care,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed, suggesting that US intelligence services and the Justice Department timed the arrests to coincide with the end of President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to the United States, to spoil the positive effects achieved and set back efforts to reset Russian-American relations. At first glance, Moscow’s concerns are justified: this is not the first time that bilateral ties have been strained by spy scandals.

However, developments following the initial arrest reports suggest that little real harm will be done (see article on page 2). The “spies” did not glean any secrets, with the charges centering on money laundering and non-compliance with regulations on the registration of foreign government agents. This could easily be explained by some kind of public/private partnership using cash payments, which is not uncommon in Russia. Another possible explanation could be uncouth attempts by Russian intelligence to recruit US agents.

Undoubtedly, some members of the US political establishment are still hostile towards Russia and oppose the warming of US-Russia ties. It is possible that these forces were behind the latest scandal, but in any case it was not thoroughly prepared: the Obama administration, like the Kremlin, is obviously not interested in a new spy scandal. If no retaliation occurs from Russian intelligence services, the incident could be brushed under the rug.

Of course, good political relations do not necessarily mean the end of spying. Relations between Washington and Moscow in the post-Soviet period have been marked by a number of high-profile spy scandals. These include the 1994 arrest of former CIA officer Aldrich Ames, who was convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and then Russia, and the 2002 arrest of Robert Hanssen, a former FBI agent who spied for Soviet and Russian intelligence services. Neither of these arrests led to worsening relations between the two countries. Similarly, regular arrests of Chinese and Israeli spies by the FBI have little effect on these nations’ economic and political ties with the United States.

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