To Russia, with love?

I have only two thoughts on the deal that has sent ten Russian spies back to their homeland, in exchange for four people who were, as the Times puts it, "deemed to be spies" in Russia. First, some people wonder why the United States didn’t get more upset about this, and why the Obama administration ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

I have only two thoughts on the deal that has sent ten Russian spies back to their homeland, in exchange for four people who were, as the Times puts it, "deemed to be spies" in Russia.

First, some people wonder why the United States didn't get more upset about this, and why the Obama administration didn't allow the incident to derail its long-term effort to "reset" relations with Moscow. The simple answer is: because we are undoubtedly doing the same thing, albeit probably in different ways. I doubt we've sent U.S. citizens to Russia as long-term moles (though anything's possible), but I have no doubt whatsoever that we are engaged in all sort of espionage efforts there (and in plenty of other countries too). To pitch the diplomatic equivalent of a hissy fit over something that we are doing ourselves would be asinine.  And as Reagan administration official Richard Burt pointed out, the United States and the Soviet Union ratified numerous agreement at the height of the Cold War, even though we were spying on each other like crazy and trying to bring about the other side's collapse (we succeeded, they failed).

Second, it is remarkable how quickly the whole business was resolved. The two governments did the deal, the Russian spies plead guilty, and the handoff was made. Turns out its much better to be spying for Russia than to be detained as a suspected terrorist. If that happens, you could end up being held without trial for eight years, with the U.S. government bending over backwards to find some way to keep you in custody, even when there was mounting evidence that you were innocent. Keep that latter point in mind the next time you decide to visit Yemen, or when somebody brags about our deep commitment to the "rule of law" and the importance of habeas corpus.

I have only two thoughts on the deal that has sent ten Russian spies back to their homeland, in exchange for four people who were, as the Times puts it, "deemed to be spies" in Russia.

First, some people wonder why the United States didn’t get more upset about this, and why the Obama administration didn’t allow the incident to derail its long-term effort to "reset" relations with Moscow. The simple answer is: because we are undoubtedly doing the same thing, albeit probably in different ways. I doubt we’ve sent U.S. citizens to Russia as long-term moles (though anything’s possible), but I have no doubt whatsoever that we are engaged in all sort of espionage efforts there (and in plenty of other countries too). To pitch the diplomatic equivalent of a hissy fit over something that we are doing ourselves would be asinine.  And as Reagan administration official Richard Burt pointed out, the United States and the Soviet Union ratified numerous agreement at the height of the Cold War, even though we were spying on each other like crazy and trying to bring about the other side’s collapse (we succeeded, they failed).

Second, it is remarkable how quickly the whole business was resolved. The two governments did the deal, the Russian spies plead guilty, and the handoff was made. Turns out its much better to be spying for Russia than to be detained as a suspected terrorist. If that happens, you could end up being held without trial for eight years, with the U.S. government bending over backwards to find some way to keep you in custody, even when there was mounting evidence that you were innocent. Keep that latter point in mind the next time you decide to visit Yemen, or when somebody brags about our deep commitment to the "rule of law" and the importance of habeas corpus.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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