What Moscow's Arrest Says About U.S. Relations With Russia

James Kitfield

Russian President Vladimir Putin knows exactly how this gambit goes down: an intercept of a secret meeting arranged by the third secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow; a U.S. official carrying tools of the spy trade and baggies of cash to entice potential Russian double-agents, with promises of much more to come; the trap carefully prepared by the Russian security services, with photographers ready to catch the take-down, public outing, and humiliation of alleged CIA spy Ryan Fogle.

Putin knows the ambush gambit that was played in Moscow on Tuesday because he came of age as a young intelligence officer during the “mole wars” of the 1980s, when the CIA and KGB were engaged in a deadly spy-versus-spy game of double and triple agents. Largely as a result of the treachery of double agents Aldrich Ames of the CIA and Robert Hanssen of the FBI, more than 10 U.S. moles inside the KGB and Soviet security forces were exposed and executed. They included Soviet Army General Dmitri Polyakov, code-named “Top Hat,” who was one of the most important Soviet agents ever recruited by the CIA until he was exposed and killed.

During those seminal years, Putin was a KGB counterintelligence agent monitoring foreigners and consular officials in Leningrad, before being stationed in East Germany (1985-1990), a hotbed of counterintelligence intrigue during a particularly tense period of the Cold War. Only at that time, it was a weakened Soviet Union trying to pull its troops out of a decade-long war in Afghanistan, and the United States trying to take advantage of its vulnerability.

"That was a very, very cold period of the Cold War, with the U.S. involved in the biggest covert action in CIA history in Afghanistan, and the Soviets killing these U.S. double agents betrayed by Ames and staging all these arrests of CIA operatives in Moscow,” said a former senior CIA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Today’s arrest absolutely pulled a page right out of that Cold War handbook, with this guy on the ground with his arms behind his back and the camera flashes exploding. The question is why did Putin decide to make such a big deal of the incident at this moment? Because as my former KGB contacts would have explained, ‘Dis iz no accident.’ ”

Indeed, as the U.S. and Russia go through the motions of expelling each other’s “diplomats” in the coming days, it’s likely they will only be pawns in a much bigger game, the intended prize of which may never be fully known. Tuesday’s arrest comes exactly a week after Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Moscow, for instance, and seemed to reach an important diplomatic breakthrough with a joint U.S.-Russian initiative to try to bring the warring parties in Syria’s civil war to the negotiating table. That initiative, coupled with U.S.–Russian intelligence cooperation on the Boston marathon bombing allegedly involving two brothers from a restive Russian republic, had many analysts suggesting a thaw in relations after a frosty two years (Putin publicly accused the U.S. of fomenting protests against the flawed election that returned him to the presidency in December 2011).

"I suspect the actual intelligence activity revealed in today's incident is less important than the temperature of the overall U.S.-Russian relationship, and what signals Moscow wants to send to the United States and others," said Paul Pillar, a former career CIA analyst now at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. "Russian leaders may have felt there was too much crowing about the new Syrian initiative, and they may be signaling to [Syrian strongman and client] Bashar al-Assad that we're not throwing you under the bus and aligning ourselves comfortably with the U.S."

In the Machiavellian world of spy-versus-spy, Russia’s Federal Security Service may also be trying to exacerbate tensions between Kerry and the CIA. As the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry served as an Obama envoy in high-level talks with Pakistani officials a few years ago, for instance, and was reportedly incensed when the CIA launched a drone strike that angered the Pakistanis in the midst of his shuttle diplomacy. The arrest of an alleged CIA agent in Moscow so close on the heels of Kerry’s recent visit could heighten those tensions.

"I played the Russian game for most of my working life, and sometimes anything that causes the U.S. government discomfort makes the Russian security forces happy,” said a former top U.S. intelligence official. “It gives them a jolt.”

A third possibility is that the Federal Security Services are looking for payback for a 2010 incident in which 10 Russian agents were very publicly exposed in the United States, and pled guilty for failing to register as foreign agents before being expelled from the country for intelligence gathering. In another scene right out of the Cold War handbook, they were released in exchange for Russia’s release of four Russian prisoners accused of spying for the United States. That incident also occurred in the aftermath of an important meeting, that time between President Obama and then-President [Dmitri] Medvedev, who characterized the meeting as a big success.

"And suddenly you had this very public arrest of a large group of Russian spies, a humiliation that the Russian special services haven’t forgotten and may be trying to avenge with today’s arrest,” said Dmitri Simes, a Russian expert and president of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “What you can fairly surmise is this was a political decision that probably required Putin’s direct approval. We don’t yet know the answer, however, to why he would want a provocation with the United States at this point in time.”