ONE could be forgiven for interpreting the US-Russian spy saga that apparently culminated last weekend on an airfield in Vienna as a case of gravitas repeating itself as farce. It wasn’t all that long ago, after all, that espionage between the United States and the former Soviet Union was a deadly serious business, part of an ideological conflict between the superpowers whose battlefields stretched around the globe.
Yet this seemingly frivolous reminder of the Cold War has evoked a degree of nostalgia in some quarters. Sure, the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation wasn’t imaginary, but it generally hovered in the background and turned acute only for brief periods of time, such as the terrifying fortnight during which the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded. Beyond that, the Soviets and the Americans were reasonably well acquainted with each other’s antics. Sure, their rivalry sometimes entailed copious bloodshed – and never on American or Soviet soil – but both sides broadly knew what they were up against.
In the light of the experiences of the 21st century’s first decade, it is not entirely surprising that the slightly more distant past should, in hindsight, seem like a more innocent place. A closer look may well serve as a corrective. But it’s also easy to forget how bereft the US military-intelligence establishment felt when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic successor state, for a variety of reasons, was never likely to serve as a substitute. Saddam Hussein was small fry. Then militant Islamist fundamentalism succeeded in occupying the primary enemy slot, and things have somehow never been the same.
Hence the sporadic sentimental longing for Cold War verities. And although Vladimir Putin has striven to create the impression that the past isn’t entirely a different country by reinstating some of the more undesirable Soviet practices in one form or another, the fact is that even if Russia wanted to be a foil in the sort of confrontation on which the US – and particularly its military-industrial complex – thrived, its chances of success would be small.
The spy ring busted in recent weeks after months, and in some cases possibly years, of surveillance was clearly not a part of any grand Russian design. On the available evidence it was a routine and relatively mundane operation that involved ensconcing Russian agents in American suburbia with no direct mission other than to mingle with the mainstream of society, establish friendships with somewhat influential individuals – in the world of finance, for instance, or in the nuclear industry – and pass on anything interesting that they happened to pick up.
It is, of course, possible that the Russian foreign intelligence service, the SVR, had more concrete plans for this bunch in the longer term, or it may have simply considered them useful plants in case something came up in the future. There may be scores more such Russians scattered across the States, and there are bound to be quite a few in Europe. Chances are most of the targeted countries return the compliment by having plenty of agents in Russia. In fact, even the closest allies are known to routinely spy on each other; Israeli agents, for instance, are periodically discovered in Washington.
Last week, the Russians initially feigned innocence – “We don’t know what you’re talking about,” as Hollywood scripts often put it – but not long thereafter secretly negotiated a deal whereby the ten men and women arrested in various parts of the US would be sent to Moscow, while Russia would in turn free four men imprisoned on the charge of spying for the west. In their final appearance in a US court, the nine Russians admitted their true identities (the tenth is a Peruvian-born American whose identity was never in doubt) and the illegality of their activities and were sentenced to immediate deportation on the charge not of espionage, but of acting as unregistered agents for a foreign government without informing the attorney-general.
Now that’s embarrassing for the SVR. One can hardly imagine it instructing it’s next batch of agents: “And finally, under no circumstances forget to register yourself with the US attorney-general’s department. Nyet, nyet, nyet. If you ignore this directive, you’ll find yourself on the next flight to Vienna.”
The lack of vituperation with which this matter appears to have been resolved reflects a desire on both sides not to jeopardize recently repaired relations – but also suggests that the Americans are finding it difficult to take the whole affair too seriously, with even Vice-President Joe Biden joking on TV that he’d rather have dispatched far-right radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh to Moscow in place of the most glamorous of the deportees, Anna Chapman. The general American impression appears to be that even if the ten had remained undetected, doing what they were doing (which evidently wasn’t much), it’s unlikely any of them would ever have posed a serious threat to US national security.
Inevitably, many questions remain unanswered, but the affair is a far cry from the spy scandals of yore, when those suspected of espionage could pay with their lives, as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg did in the 1950s. Then there was the Cambridge ring in Britain, three of whose members managed to escape to Moscow. From the 1960s onwards, on many occasions the two sides agreed to swap imprisoned spies, with the exchange often taking place on the Glienicke bridge between East and West Germany. One of the first such exchanges involved KGB colonel Rudolf Abel, who had been arrested in the US, and Gary Powers, the pilot of an American spy plane shot down by the Soviets – who noted with consternation that the flight had originated at the Badaber air base near Peshawar. (Whatever else may have changed in 50 years, Pakistan remains wedded to American interests in the region.)
It has been reported that Anna Chapman was an alumna of the People’s Friendship University in Moscow. Coincidentally, I was at the same institution back in December 1976 when one of the more bizarre Cold War swaps occurred: the Kremlin agreed to free leading Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky in exchange for Luis Corvalan, the Chilean Communist Party leader imprisoned by the Pinochet regime. When I informed my Russian roommate, a proud member of the Komsomol, about this, he was excited about Corvalan and contemptuous towards Bukovsky: “Good riddance!” he muttered. “Who needs people like him?”
Ah, those were the days!