Russian spies in US: History repeats itself as farce

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Image caption,
Joining the parent-teacher association is a far cry from Cold War-era infiltration

Spy-swaps used to be deadly serious - the Glienicke bridge in Berlin at dawn, the shuffling of shadowy figures, the Iron Curtain drawn briefly aside.

This time history has come back as farce. The Russian "spies" cannot even properly be called spies.

They were not charged with espionage, only with failing to register as foreign "agents", agents in this sense being no more than representatives.

Anyone can set up as an "agent" of a foreign government, but you have to tell the state department first. They did not.


Their penetration of the American establishment seems not to have got much beyond attending parent-teacher associations and posing on Facebook.

Image caption,
This time there's no glamorous Gary Powers, the U-2 spy plane pilot

Their amateurism was apparent when a couple of them left a critical password lying about for the FBI to find.

This time, there is no Colonel Rudolf Abel, the Soviet agent who ran a proper spy network in the US.

And there is no glamorous Gary Powers, for whom Abel was exchanged in 1962.

Powers' surveillance flight in a U-2 spy plane across Russia two years previously had been terminated by a Soviet missile, and the ensuing row noisily terminated an East-West summit.

There is no Natan Sharansky, the dissident who defied the KGB and who was swapped for Czech spies Karl and Hana Koecher.

Karl was a real "mole": he got into the CIA as a translator; the current Russian lot got nowhere near.

Not such high stakes

The game is not played for those kinds of stakes anymore.

Image caption,
US media has been less shrill about this spy-ring than Cold War equivalents

Everyone knows that information-gathering, spying even, still goes on.

The Russians monitored some British agents beaming data at a disguised rock in a Moscow park in 2006.

But it lacks that ideological edge, the sense that the spies feel they are taking part in the great struggle of their day.

One interesting point of this swap is its speed.

It used to take an age, while trials took their course, prison sentences were handed down and the balance of advantage was weighed.

Neither side wants this caper to damage long-term relations that are now of a wholly different character from what they were in the Cold War.

The US and Russia might not be friends, but they are no longer enemies.

It's as if they wanted to clear the books, to move on in the jargon.

Chess tactics

It appears that the Americans have the advantage in this round.

Image caption,
Jailed spy Igor Sutyagin did not even want to leave Russia, his mother said

They set the agenda by announcing the capture of these alleged undeclared "agents" red-handed, though they are far from the Red spies of old.

The US has sacrificed some pawns. And has probably got some high-value pieces in return.

The Russians can at least say they looked after their own.

It was always their proud boast during the Cold War. It obviously still is.

Even in the final stages, the farce continued.

It is not certain that Igor Sutyagin, jailed in 2004 for allegedly passing information to the West, even wants to leave Russia. His mother says not.

The only really sad aspect in all this is what happens to the children who thought they were regular Americans.

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