The arrest of the alleged CIA agent in Moscow looks like a joke. But it actually illustrates just how tense U.S.-Russian relations have become.
- By Anna NemtsovaAnna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, covering Russia and the former Soviet states. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship and the 2015 IWMF Courage in Journalism award.
MOSCOW — When news of the Moscow spy scandal broke yesterday, Russian Internet users quickly came up with plenty of colorful names for the alleged, blond-wigged CIA agent who was nabbed on his way to recruit a key Kremlin expert: "masquerade," "a bad show," or "a circus with one clown." People wondered who could have sent a young, dark-haired American in a puffy wig to woo an official described as a Russian secret service expert on Islamic extremism. The would-be spy carried a compass, thousands of Euros in cash, and a typewritten letter that set the honorarium for espionage at a cool million dollars.
Some suggested that the quiet American might have taken LSD on Monday night before his unexpected meeting with Russian counterintelligence agents. Others wondered whether the money he was offering his agent was really enough: life in Moscow is pretty expensive these days. For still others, the hapless Ryan Fogle, a sort of American Austin Powers, conjured up the old story of the artificial British "spy rock" that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) discovered on the side of a Moscow road in 2006. (The joke lived on for five years — until Tony Blair’s chief of staff confirmed the fake rock really was for spying.)
"The CIA guy just wanted to quit his service and go home sooner," the independent news agency polit.ru suggested. Others ventured the opinion that Fogle must have used Google Translate for his recruitment letter instead of asking somebody at the U.S. Embassy to write it for him in proper Russian.
While the spy scandal amused many both in Russia and abroad, official Moscow doesn’t seem to have found it funny at all. The statements from officialdom brim with outrage. How could some American spook be running around in a wig when at the same time FBI Director Robert Mueller was on his way to Moscow to discuss the Boston bombings with the FSB? How could this guy be offering $1 million to a Russian official just days before President Obama’s summit meeting with Putin?
Yesterday morning the FSB distributed a video to pro-Kremlin news agencies that gave its version of the episode. When U.S. embassy officials showed up at FSB headquarters to take Fogle home, an off-screen male voice lectured them like schoolboys: "As you know perfectly well, that FSB has been helping lately to investigate threats to security in the U.S.," the official said, in what seemed to be a carefully staged scene. Kremlin officials said that they were surprised by the clumsiness of Fogle’s recruitment attempt. Putin’s adviser, Yuri Ushakov, couldn’t stress the point enough: "It’s clear that that the impulses sent from above did not reach the executive level on the American side."
"Impulses" is an important word in the Kremlin vocabulary these days. Each official in each little corner of the vast Russian realm pays close attention to the signs and signals rippling out from the power center in Moscow, carefully calibrating his or her own reactions in response. So what’s happening on the executive level here in Russia?
President Putin has been saying that he wants to boost cooperation and contacts between the intelligence agencies of the two countries. In spite of the latest polite exchange of notes and visits at the top level, the Kremlin still sees the Americans as the "main enemy," Russian experts say. "The flow of anti-American rhetoric isn’t diminishing," says Igor Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow think tank. "Americans get blamed wherever local non-government organizations receive U.S. funding, and even people involved with English language courses are being labeled as foreign agents."
Two news reports loomed large on Russia’s main state-owned channel last night: "Resident’s Mistake," about the FSB’s arrest of Fogle, and "Swampland," an investigative documentary that detailed how Washington is providing the funding for revolution in the streets of Russia. Americans, the second report said, are "getting involved in our country’s domestic politics, ignoring the sovereignty of other states." In other words, they’re acting just the way Fogle tried to act — by paying money to Russians who are prepared to serve the American agenda. That was the message the film hammered home.
In today’s Russia, says Bunin, nothing — whether it’s an anti-American documentary or footage of the arrest of a U.S. spy — makes it onto the national airwaves without the Russian president’s personal approval: "Putin could put an end to this loud anti-American campaign with a snap of his fingers, but the thing is that he actually approves of it himself."
The intensifying pressure has already prompted two U.S. democracy promotion organizations to pull out of Russia earlier this year. Dozens of Russian NGOs have stopped applying for U.S. grants for fear of being prosecuted as "foreign agents." These tensions aren’t about to go away anytime soon. The political scientist and former Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov is convinced that the Kremlin will never stop putting pressure on pro-American "agents." "Nobody," he says, "is going to give a chance to American organizations inspired by radical characters like John McCain to foment a revolution in Russia." And so, he says, as long as America pursues attempts to overthrow Putin, "the two countries will continue to live in a state of cold peace."