What’s the state of Russian foreign espionage?

Still pretty healthy, it seems.

Department of Justice
Office of Public Affairs
Monday, June 28, 2010
Ten Alleged Secret Agents Arrested in the United States

Eight individuals were arrested Sunday for allegedly carrying out long-term, “deep-cover” assignments in the United States on behalf of the Russian Federation, the Justice Department announced today. Two additional defendants were also arrested Sunday for allegedly participating in the same Russian intelligence program within the United States.

In total, 11 defendants, including the 10 arrested, are charged in two separate criminal complaints with conspiring to act as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation within the United States. Federal law prohibits individuals from acting as agents of foreign governments within the United States without prior notification to the U.S. Attorney General. Nine of the defendants are also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Of course, at this stage these are no more than allegations, unproven in a court of law, and all eleven may turn out to be entirely innocent. However, their case does if nothing else bring to the fore the issue of Russian intelligence activity abroad.

Of course, everyone spies on everyone else: that is part of the dance of modern, civilised geopolitics. To an extent, that’s a very good thing: rash and dangerous military and political adventures seem much more often to be based on ignorance, wishful thinking and a miscalculation of others’ capacities and intentions rather than anything else. But there is also an etiquette about it (and speaking of etiquette, I wonder if the arrests were held back until after President Medvedev had left the USA and his round of business boostering and presidential burger-fests), just as the nature, scale, tempo and tactics of espionage speak volumes about the attitudes and interests of the parties in question.

After suffering a cataclysmic decline in the 1980s and early 1990s, Russian espionage recovered strikingly quickly in the later 1990s, not least thanks to the assiduous patronage of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. But this was not just the personal whim of one ex-spy, so much as a statement both about the rise of the siloviki (‘men of force’, the security elite) and also Russia’s return to a worldview that was at once more confrontational, suspicious, beleagured and zero-sum. The SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service, and the GRU, military intelligence, again found their reports in high demand in the Kremlin, their voices heard in policy debates.

So if it turns out that these men and women were Russian spies, it shouldn’t really surprise us. What’s interesting is that this allegation is that most of these were not just greedy or gullible locals paid to hand over information (the usual source of ‘espionage’) but ‘illegals’, exhaustively-trained Russian agents set up with false bona fides to pass themselves off as US or other nationals and burrow their way into positions in which they can both report on key policy discussions but also perhaps influence them. (You can read the main charges here.) This is the kind of expensive, long-term and frankly intrusive activity that doesn’t fall into the quotidian run of spy and counter-spy, but speaks of a much higher order level of activity. If true, it emphasises that while Moscow is desperate for Western investment and encouragement, it still cannot be considered a friend.

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