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The unravelling of a Russian spy network in the United States could well destabilise the rapprochement between the two countries which began after the election of President Obama.
They had lived for more than a decade, in American cities and suburbs, where they seemed to be just ordinary couples, doing ordinary jobs. But yesterday, American FBI agents arrested ten people on charges that they were trying to acquire fake identities in order to ferret out sensitive information about US policy.
In itself, the episode is not extraordinary: most governments pay top dollars to acquire information about the inner working of US decision-making, and Russia is not the only country trying to do so through illicit means. Nevertheless, the episode has come at a particularly awkward time in US-Russian relations, and reveals a great deal about the current Russian methods of operation.
Although few details were released by the US authorities, it seems clear that the network of alleged Russian agents was tracked by the FBI for years. Interestingly, however, the charges levelled against the suspects do not include spying as such, perhaps because it may be difficult to persuade a court about what information they were planning to steal. Instead, the suspects are accused of money laundering, as well as failure to register as 'foreign agents' while making contacts with senior US officials - including, allegedly, a nuclear researcher - with a view to gathering information about US policy towards Iran, as well as more mundane matters such as the relationship between Congress and the Administration, or disputes inside the CIA and the military leadership.
The first striking detail is the sheer scale of the operation: a fairly large network which disposed of substantial cash resources and used both old-fashioned means of communication and high-tech devices. This appears to have been a Russian investment for the long-term: some of the suspects used false identities (including those of dead Canadian and US citizens), and all were expected to blend into their surroundings by acquiring the reassuring veneer of ordinary Americans. Evidently, the SVR - the successor to the KGB - expected a payoff at a much later stage: the operation was an 'incubator' for future spying. However, there are also some indications that this was a 'fishing expedition', namely an effort by Moscow to see how far the network is likely to go and how successful it will be, without a precise idea of the final objective. The intercepted communications include frequent disputes about the expense accounts of the agents, with Moscow objecting to their spending habits. Russia was, apparently, prepared to bankroll them, but harboured doubts about how successful their work might be.
Another key feature of this episode is the success which the FBI registered in penetrating this alleged network. Evidence released yesterday in Washington included the labour of years of surveillance, such as the interception of emails, the placing of secret microphones in the suspects' homes and various searches of their premises. It is very possible that the FBI felt it could afford the luxury of a leisurely investigation, largely because the alleged Russian spying ring was unlikely to cause immediate harm. The investigation extended beyond the US territory, to various locations in Latin America where the suspects allegedly made contact with their handlers. If the allegations are made to stick in the subsequent trial, this will represent a major triumph for the FBI and a serious blow to all Russian spying efforts in the US: Moscow will have to calculate that the Americans know far more than they are letting on about Russia's other spying activities.
Will this harm Russian relations with the West?
Either way, the row has come at a particularly sensitive moment in US-Russia relations. For only last Thursday (24 June 2010), Russian president Dmitry Medvedev was President Obama's guest in the White House, for a meeting which was supposed to cement a blossoming new partnership between their countries, after decades of frosty relations. 'Resetting' the US-Russia link is one foreign policy achievement for which President Obama feels truly proud. And the American president spent a great deal of political capital in making it happen: he cancelled plans to build US missile defence installations in Europe, to Moscow's great delight. And he swiftly relaunched nuclear disarmament talks, stalled during the eight years of the George W Bush's presidency.
The Americans claim that their tactic has paid off: Russia swung behind the US in adopting sanctions against Iran and this ensured that China, another key UN Security Council member, also accepted the need for sanctions. A nuclear arms control deal is now before the US Senate, with further disarmament negotiations in the offing.
It is unlikely that the current spying incident will derail this process. But, clearly, the spying revelations will embarrass Russian president Medvedev, who has staked a great deal on better relations with Washington. Try as hard as they may, the Americans will never be able to persuade Moscow that the revelations were not politically-motivated: coming just a few days after the Russian leader's visit to Washington and immediately after Obama and Medvedev jointly took part in the G-8 and G-20 summits in neighbouring Canada, the guess in the Kremlin will be that the Americans set up to deliberately humiliate Russia. And, given the Russian frame of mind - always prone to conspiracy theories - it is possible that Moscow will conclude that, after obtaining Russian support for anti-Iranian sanctions at the United Nations, Washington felt free to hit at Russia again.
This may make the management of sanctions against Iran much harder; Russia is already trying to water down the interpretation of the latest UN Security Council resolution on Iran. And it may mean that other diplomatic ties between the two countries will also be subjected to some pressure.
And, as the American law enforcement agencies pointed out, the Russian tactic of planting agents under assumed names and making them appear as local nationals is, allegedly, being pursued in other Western countries as well. This will be noted in Britain, a country whose relations with Russia are still reeling after years of mutual recriminations about spying.