Today’s announcement that a US “spy” working in the American embassy in Moscow had been captured by the FSB has raised more than a few eyebrows about not only the details of this case (the alleged spy’s Get Smart paraphernalia) but also the timing. I asked Professor Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian intelligence, what he made of this bizarre story:
Michael Weiss: So now evidently our spies wear “flashy” blonde wigs and carry compasses. What do you make of this story?
Mark Galeotti: Who knows whether the hapless Mr. Fogle is indeed a spy or not; it’s by no means impossible. But the various props with which he was allegedly caught are much less credible. A wig? Maybe; sometimes you may need to change your appearance to throw off surveillance. An atlas of Moscow? Perhaps; it’s a big city and using your cellphone’s map and GPS apps invites electronic location-finding. A letter offering a million bucks? That’s what really looks suspicious to me; if he genuinely was carrying something like this around, then he must be one of the dumber spies around, and on the whole it’s the sharp, up-and-comers who get posted to Moscow.
I couldn’t rule out a genuine spy capture being garnished to make it more visual–some guy in a baseball cap does not make for great TV–not least because it’s clumsy and possibly counter-productive un-subtlety isn’t that out of line with the clumsy and possibly counter-productive un-subtlety we’ve seen in so many aspects of Kremlin PR of late.
Michael Weiss: And it comes off John Kerry’s meeting with Putin and Lavrov on Syria, which itself was followed by the embarrassing disclosure that Russia intends to sell Assad S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Is this a timed “gotcha,” do you suppose?
Mark Galeotti: It was undoubtedly a political decision to do this, to do this now, and to do this in this way. I can’t exclude wanting to underline to Kerry–and UK prime minister David Cameron, who also recently met with Putin–than security cooperation agreements don’t make Moscow any less fierce in defending its national interests, but primarily I see this as directed for a domestic constituency. It also reflected a public embarrassment for beleaguered and rather hapless US ambassador Mike McFaul, who was engaged in a confidence-building twitter Q&A session at the very moment the news was broken.
Michael Weiss: What happens, typically, when the Russians do capture an American spy? Do we see him paraded on RT or Channel 1 like this?
Mark Galeotti: This is precisely why I see this as a political act. In the first case, when counter-intelligence agencies identify a foreign spy under official cover, their impulse is generally to watch rather than act: see who the spy meets and recruits. After all, make them persona non grata and sooner or later a new, unknown spy gets moved in. If the decision is made to PNG, then usually that will be done quietly, not least to avoid tit-for-tat retaliation. A full public spread like this is decided on in the Kremlin, and in my opinion was intended to reinforce the current official line that Russia is beleaguered–with NGOs and anti-government protesters alike working for foreign governments–such that what is needed is a common front behind Vladimir Putin. Again: clumsy and possibly counter-productive un-subtlety.