Spy row highlights ambivalent US-Russia ties

Home of alleged agents Richard and Cynthia Murphy in Montclair, New Jersey The alleged agents were said to have posed as ordinary citizens

Less than a week ago, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was visiting factories in California's Silicon Valley, eager to enlist US firms in Russia's own technological revolution.

All the talk was of the relative success of the "re-setting of ties" between Washington and Moscow undertaken by the Obama administration.

But now the headlines are harking back to a very different, older, more adversarial relationship following the arrest of a network of alleged Russian agents by the FBI.

Charles Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, believes this episode "has come at a very awkward moment - just as Moscow and Washington are in the midst of pursuing rapprochement and deepening strategic cooperation".

"Nonetheless, espionage - for better or worse - remains a fixture of international politics," Prof Kupchan said.

"The revelation of the alleged Russian spy ring thus represents primarily a public relations challenge to the policy of re-setting relations, not a discovery that promises to scuttle improving ties between the US and Russia."

'Unfortunate timing'

Jeffrey Mankoff, a fellow for Russian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees the wider impact of this affair will in all likelihood be limited.

Start Quote

In both countries espionage and counter espionage efforts are only very loosely tied to diplomacy”

End Quote Stephen Sestanovich US commentator on Russian affairs

"There are friendly countries, there are no friendly intelligence agencies," Mr Mankoff explained.

"The fact of widespread espionage and counter-espionage between the US and Russia is a legacy of the Cold War and has little to do with the state of bilateral relations at any given moment," he said.

Mr Mankoff accepts that "the timing of this case is unfortunate".

"It threatens to take some of the glow off President Medvedev's successful US visit last week," he said.

He argued there would probably be a brief period of muted recriminations, but that then this episode would fade.

His colleague, Stephen Sestanovich, one of Washington's leading commentators on Russian affairs, also believes the fall-out from this affair will be limited.

"In both countries espionage and counter espionage efforts are only very loosely tied to diplomacy. Both governments will want to keep the affair from taking on too much significance," said Mr Sestanovich.

Cold War infrastructure

For a Russian take on the affair, I turned to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

His hope was that its impact would be short-lived.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev winks while standing next to US President Barack Obama The former Cold War rivals had been improving relations

But in Mr Trenin's view "both Russia and the United States still keep much more of the Cold War infrastructure than is needed by either".

He had an intriguing point of view on the specific timing of this announcement. While most US commentators have been speculating about Russian motives, Dmitri Trenin believes the timing of the announcement of these arrests is telling.

Mr Trenin sees two groups of interest in this matter. The first he says are "those in the US who are unhappy about the re-set in relations, who argue that Russia is getting much more out of it and want it to slow down".

Mr Trenin says the second group is the "FBI, which wants to burnish its reputation after the Times Square bomb incident and the Chicago Christmas airline bomb-plot".

Of course there are clearly different constituencies at work in Moscow, too.

As Charles Kupchan said: "When it comes to re-setting relations with the United States and with Nato, Russia's security, defence and foreign policy bureaucracy tend to drag their feet. President Medvedev seems to be in the lead on this front, pulling a reluctant bureaucracy behind him."

Legacy of the past

Earlier this month, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates described Russia's foreign policy as "schizophrenic".

Start Quote

I trust there are US spies in Russia and will be for a long time, never mind the re-set”

End Quote Dmitri Trenin Director, Carnegie Moscow Centre

He was referring to Moscow's ambivalent approach towards Iran's nuclear activities.

But when asked whether this might be an appropriate label to describe Russia's whole approach to the Obama administration as well?

Dmitri Trenin said: "I think the US-Russian relationship as a whole is somewhat schizophrenic."

But what really worried him was the way in which the legacy of the past intruded into the present. Should we really be so surprised by these espionage allegations?

"I trust there are US spies in Russia and will be for a long time, never mind the re-set," Mr Trenin said.

He added: "But I am even more troubled that 20 years after the end of the Cold War, Moscow and Washington are still targeted by very real nuclear missiles of the 'other side'. The nukes may have had a real deterrence mission in the Cold War, but now it's like the light of a star that is long dead - dead but dangerous."

Charles Kupchan too believes that Russian foreign policy has a "schizophrenic" quality to it.

He said: "On the one hand, Moscow seems sincerely intent on pursuing rapprochement with the West and finding its place within the Euro-Atlantic order."

But Prof Kupchan said that, on the other hand, "its policies toward Georgia and missile defence and its use of its energy supplies to coerce its neighbours indicate otherwise".

Everyone I spoke to in both Washington and Moscow wondered if the US might in due course throw out the Russian handlers of these alleged agents if, that is, these diplomats are still on US soil.

That would be playing pretty much to form - you are found out and you walk.

If this happens maybe Moscow might reciprocate with expulsions of its own. But after that things would in all probability calm down.

All of the commentators and analysts were pretty much of one mind: Both the re-set and the diplomatic "schizophrenia" in relations between Russia and the US look set to continue.

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