The details of the suspected Russian spy ring busted by federal agents
on Monday have a certain John Le Carre-meets-"Spies Like Us
" ring to them, what with messages written in invisible ink and newspapers stuffed with thousands of dollars. But while some of the presumed agents' tactics seemed laughably cliche (no word yet on whether there were Maxwell Smart shoe phones
), the potential damage to U.S.-Russian relations is quite real.
The Department of Justice has accused 11 people of participating in operations it characterized as "long-term, deep-cover
" assignments. News of the Cold War Era-like espionage web could not have come at a more awkward time. President Dmitry Medvedev is fresh off a hamburgers-'n'-hugs summit
in Washington with President Obama, which the White House had characterized as part of a broader effort to "reset" relations
between the two countries.
Thus far, the White House has taken a largely non-confrontational stance, neither pointing fingers nor offering olive branches. In a press conference on Tuesday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs declined to comment on "active law enforcement investigations," but insisted that the relations between the United States and Russia remain on track. Gibbs focused on progress made between the two governments in the last year and a half, citing the New START Treaty and joint United Nations actions to impose sanctions on Iran. He declined to comment on the president's reaction to news of the espionage ring, except to say that, "The president was thoroughly and appropriately informed" of the case.
The State Department on Tuesday struck much the same posture, seeking to downplay
the events. "We would like to get to the point where there is just so much trust and cooperation between the United States and Russia that nobody would think of turning to intelligence means to find out things that they couldn't find out in other channels," said Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Philip Gordon. "We're apparently not there yet. I don't think anyone in this room is shocked to have discovered that."
The Russian government, for its part, has vacillated between a somewhat aggressive posture and one of peacemaking. A statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry
on Tuesday said, "These actions are unfounded and pursue unseemly goals. We don't understand the reasons which prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to make a public statement in the spirit of Cold War-era spy stories." In a meeting Tuesday in Israel with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said
in reference to the case, "Back at your home, the police went out of control [and] are throwing people in jail." But he added, "I hope that all the positive gains that have been achieved in our relationship will not be damaged by the recent event."
Russia's actions in the coming weeks will be key in determining whether relations have been damaged. "Do they continue to deny the allegations or do they retaliate or do they cooperate? That's the $64,000 question," said Darrell West of the Brookings Institution. "I think it's in [Russia's] interest to cooperate." Robert Service, senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of the book, "Trotsky: A Biography," concurred. "Russia needs foreign direct investment, technology and expertise in order to cease to be an isolated economy. Even Putin understands this."
Ultimately, it remains unclear just how much involvement the upper echelon of Russian intelligence agencies had in overseeing the suspected spy network. According to West, President Medvedev doesn't appear to be "the type of leader to condone" such espionage in the first place, noting, "These types of things often start at the mid-to-low levels of government. People at the top sometimes don't even know what's going on the bowels of their organization."
Service pointed to the very nature of the Russian security infrastructure, saying, "The security agencies in Russia are much more chaotic and hard to control than their counterparts in the Western, democratic countries. They can be very controlled in certain areas and much more chaotic in others. Their competence shouldn't be overestimated."