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Let The Spy Games Begin!

A drawing shows the ten alleged spy suspects in a New York courtroom on July 8, 2010.
A drawing shows the ten alleged spy suspects in a New York courtroom on July 8, 2010.
Why was Russia so eager to resolve the spy scandal so quickly and amicably? Much of the commentary has focused on the fact that a critical mass of the Kremlin elite sees a lot of value in improved relations with the United States and did not want to damage the reset.

So when the administration of Barack Obama offered a face-saving exchange, which the White House reportedly favored before the 10 suspects were even apprehended, the Kremlin jumped at the chance.

There is probably a fair bit of truth to this assessment. Writing in today's edition of "Vremya novostei," journalists Anatoly Karavayev and Victor Paukov offer the following assessment:

Figuratively speaking, the spy scandal ended in politicians' triumph over intelligence services. With the 'reset' under way, the two countries' political leaders decided not to spoil their relations over the activities of secret services, which, after all, were established to spy on each other. The exchange defused a potentially volatile situation.

According to a report in "Kommersant" on June 30, just two days after the Russians were arrested, the Kremlin put the word out to officials and regime-friendly pundits not to escalate the scandal with inflammatory comments."Such a restrained reaction suggests that Moscow would like to hush up the scandal as soon as possible, an informed insider tells Kommersant," the daily wrote.

But a recent editorial in "" suggests that there was more to the Kremlin's eagerness to put the scandal behind them than a desire to preserve the thaw in U.S.-Russian relations:

Chapman and Co. apparently know something important about the Russian authorities, who were prepared to urgently exchange them for people serving sentences for serious crimes. And they don't even fear that these 'spies' will work for the enemy.

What is the Kremlin trying to hide. My colleagues Robert Coalson and Gregory Feifer offer their takes here, here, and here.

Much of the media attention about the swap has focused on Igor Sutyagin, an arms control researcher who didn't have access to classified material and who most neutral observers believe is not a spy.

But as a report in the "Financial Times" notes (h/t to Robert Amsterdam), the other three people the Russians turned over to the West could indeed turn out to be very valuable assets:

At least three of the four figures transferred by Moscow to the west were once important members of the Russian security services who betrayed the Kremlin’s intelligence operation, passing secrets to Washington and London over many years...

Intelligence experts said of the three Russians going to the west, the most significant was Alexander Zaporozhsky. A decorated former KGB officer, he gave the CIA information on as many as 20 Russian intelligence assets in the U.S., possibly including Mr. [Robert] Hanssen and Mr. [Aldrich] Ames, according to the Russian press. The second most important is Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia’s military intelligence branch, the GRU. Russian media said he had exposed dozens of Russian officers working for British intelligence.

Writing in "Vremya novostei," Karavayev and Paukov argue that the United States won this round hands down, but add that the game is far from over. First, they say, we can expect a reckoning in the Russian security services. And then, a retaliation against Washington:

U.S. political leadership and secret services alone are absolute winners. The former got a chance to demonstrate their generosity and the latter, their professionalism.
In Russia, the outcome of the scandal may only satisfy the political leadership but not secret services. The latter are accustomed to the talion law of an eye for an eye. So this shameful a fiasco must have smeared a lot of reputes and perhaps even jeopardized some careers. Representatives of the siloviki in the Russian political establishment are unlikely to relax until some sort of 'symmetric' answer is formulated, i.e., until they embarrass the Americans back. It stands to reason to expect exposure of some American spies in Russia before long, which is going to become another test for the 'reset.'

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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