The spy swap: a good deal for Moscow?

Yesterday’s fascinating and faintly-bizarre spy swap on the runway at Vienna saw the Russians swap two real spies, one possible ex-spy and a slightly naive academic who fell foul of institutional paranoia for ten professional (if not especially effective*) deep-cover intelligence operatives. Furthermore, the quick exchange saves face for Russia, forestalling what otherwise would be a long and lurid trial, drip-feeding the public with lurid and sometimes surreal tales of dead-letter drops, buried money, subsidised housing and exasperated communications from Moscow Centre about their lack of productivity.

So it looks as if in return for getting caught in an aggressive long-term, deep-penetration espionage operation against the USA, Russia is getting off very lightly. It even gets to fulminate about US plots and provocations and — as one news report already has — vaunt a “10-4 win.”

Is this US weakness, stupidity, or maturity? Probably a bit of each. Everyone spies on everyone else, and while I’m not convinced the West maintains the same scale of sleeper operations in Russia, in the big picture this genuine counter-intel triumph should not be allowed to derail President Obama’s ‘re-set.’ Washington doesn’t need the moral satisfaction of trying to make Moscow squirm — and the Russians tend to react badly and defensively to being put on the spot. On the other hand, there must be a concern about the extent to which a pattern has been established, whereby the Russians do something the West regards as a breach of the norms and etiquette of international relations (invading Georgia, sheltering suspected murderers, etc), is roundly criticised, defiantly snaps back and after a month or two the West lets bygones be bygones in the name of that big picture. On the microscale, that makes sense: what good would be accomplished by a principled but seemingly self-defeating stand? But on the macroscale, when is enough enough? Honestly, I don’t think this case ought to be such a back-breaking straw. As I say, everyone spies, and while this is the biggest spy story since the end of the Cold War. But what about the next irritant? And the next after that?

* Though in all fairness, it is hard to say whether this was because of their qualities or because the missions they were given were in some ways nonsensical…

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