Will spy scandal hamper U.S.-Russia collaboration on Sochi Olympics security?

New York University's Professor of Global Affairs Mark Galeotti reflects on the long-term consequences of the recent spy scandal and whether it will affect U.S.-Russia cooperation on security during the 2014 Olympics.

Will spy scandal hamper U.S.-Russia collaboration on Sochi Olympics security? Drawing by Niyaz Karim

Drawing by Niyaz Karim. Click to enlarge.

The Moscow spy case, with its cheap wigs, compasses and cash, initially seems more akin to a Graham Greene 'Our Man in Havana'-style farce than a John le Carre Cold War thriller. But it has certainly overshadowed the previous month’s positive talk of closer intelligence and security cooperation between Russia and the West, especially over the Boston bombing and the Sochi Winter Olympics.

However, the Ryan Fogle case should not spoil such cooperation; if anything, it helps to clarify how it does and does not work—and where the line between reckless optimism and hard-nosed pragmatism ought to be drawn.

Of course, this latest spy scandal has generated headlines both outraged and entertained. After being on the receiving end of such coverage in recent years, Russia is clearly enjoying playing the other side.

Even though Moscow has chosen to go beyond the unspoken conventions of spy-versus-spy, outing the CIA’s station chief in Moscow, it has also claimed that trying to recruit agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB) was “crossing a red line” (as if either the West or the Russians have ever held back from penetrating each other's security services, given half a chance).

Let’s keep all this in context, though. Spy scandals generate much more smoke than real fire. Everyone knows that everyone spies on everyone else. There are, of course, occasions when espionage scandals become real political incidents, but there is little sense that either side has any desire for this to happen.

The United States is eager for its investigations into the Boston terrorist attack to continue, and that requires good cooperation between Washington and Moscow. Although the Americans harbour some dissatisfaction with the pace and level of Russian disclosure, they feel that something is better than nothing. Meanwhile, the West needs to keep the Kremlin on board if there is to be any meaningful multilateral progress over Syria.

Likewise, the Russians, while happy to trigger this row, are making sure they keep control of it. President Vladimir Putin is taking a tougher, less tolerant line in his management of domestic politics this presidency, but his distinctively realpolitik, bare-knuckled foreign policy style remains effective. He is a careful calibrator of confrontation, with a keen sense of quite how far he can push the West on key issues.

In this respect, lessons have been learned in recent years by the Russians and the British from the 2006 murder in London of former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko.

While the UK adopted a suitably tough line at first when Moscow refused to extradite suspect Andrei Lugovoi, ultimately it was unwilling to base its entire policy towards Russia on this one case.

When Russian banker German Gorbuntsov was shot in London in 2012, it was with a degree of quiet relief that this became the pretext to reopen meaningful law-enforcement cooperation between London and Moscow.

When Prime Minister David Cameron visited Sochi earlier this month, wider counter-terrorism cooperation, particularly over the Winter Olympics, was also agreed.

While Russia's tough stance may seem to have paid off, however, Moscow is also aware what this costs in terms of security cooperation with the West. In an age of soft power, interconnected security threats and global nationalbranding, this could be seen as a Pyrrhic victory, at best.

In any case, the present case is primarily a domestic affair. The CIA has much the same role as Fogle’s wigs and compass: convenient props to give the story appeal. It may be that the FSB, embroiled in a battle for influence with other Russian security organizations, wanted to make a splash.

Regardless, this case is being managed from the Kremlin, and seems rather intended to shore up the government’s claim to be the sole and vigilant defender of Russia’s interests in a world of foreign intrigues.

That cannot and will not get in the way of pragmatic cooperation in areas of mutual interest, though. Next February's Sochi Winter Olympics provide the best example. With many visitors and competitors expected from around the world, it is in everyone’s interests for it to pass off safely, despite the threats from Jihadists and North Caucasus nationalists.

The real question is how far Moscow will be willing to allow the rest of the world to help. The London 2012 Olympics were in many ways exemplary, with extensive sharing of intelligence and even the embedding of foreign security officers into the British planning process and operations themselves.

With Sochi, though, so far Russia is taking a more cautious and restrictive approach - asking other countries to hand over intelligence and let Moscow worry about Olympic security.

While these are certainly Russia’s Games, true security cooperation is a matter of give and take, a discussion rather than a monologue. The more the Russians are willing to incorporate outsiders, the most productive the process will be. This does not demand any wider sympathy between nations. Israel has found ways of quietly cooperating with some of its Arab neighbors, historical enmities and present disagreements notwithstanding.

Moscow has shown that it can counter foreign espionage operations—and make political capital out of it—without triggering counterproductive tit-for-tat expulsions and similar histrionics.

However, it remains to be seen if true intelligence sharing between the West  and Russia can take place in time for Sochi. Ideally, both Russia and the West should be able to make the most of this opportunity to ensure a safe and successful Olympics - so that the media headlines next February are about sporting, not geopolitical, rivalries.

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University.

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