The “Russian spy ring” story has been alternately thrilling and boring the news-reading public for nearly 48 hours now, and it’s safe to say that — until the FBI or U.S. Attorney’s Office or the Justice Department releases any new information — there’s not much left to say. There wasn’t a whole lot of journalism to be had from the start, in fact. Most reporters seem to have merely read over the DOJ’s formal charges (made available online in two PDFs, here and here), offering colorful retellings of whichever nutty details they liked best.
There have been some additional newsworthy remarks by Foreign Minister Lavrov, who questioned the timing of the arrests (which immediately followed Medvedev’s North American tour), and Vladimir Putin, who told visiting former president Bill Cliton that “his police got out of control.” The really tasty quote from the Russian side of the pond, however, belongs to Vladimir Kolesnikov, deputy chairman of the security affairs committee in the Duma, who told RIA Novosti that anti-Obama elements in the U.S. government were trying to undermine the president’s U.S.-Russia reset agenda. This comment elicited great skepticism in the West, inspiring, for instance, Andrey Osborn to write in response:
It is a theory that allows the Russians to publicly save face: it is not our new friends that have stabbed us in the back but the enemies of our new friends. Yet the real victim of the dispute may not be Mr Obama but Mr Medvedev or, more accurately, the policy vector he represents. He is the one who has publicly gambled on embracing the West, while Vladimir Putin, the prime minister and former president, has kept notably quiet on the subject and is known for his tough anti-Western rhetoric.
Yes, Vladimir Putin — who was the first foreign leader to phone President Bush following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and who delivered the Northern Alliance and America’s initial Afghanistan success — is indeed “known for his tough anti-Western rhetoric.” That’s because people like Mr. Osborn make sure of it, after all, repeating ad nauseum that he’s a bad, bad man. Nevermind that Putin’s “quiet,” “anti-Western” confrontation with Bill Clinton yesterday came amid smiles and this concluding remark:
But this is just their job. I really expect that the positive that has been accumulated in the recent time in our international relations will not suffer, and I also hope that those people who value the Russian-American relations understand this in today’s situation as well.
The media’s “Dima not Vova” discourse aside, it is interesting (or at least entertaining) to speculate about how much the White House knew in advance of these arrests. Because the investigation lasted so many years, it seems likely that somebody mentioned it to the president (or his Russia advisor, Michael McFaul) at some point since January 2009, but I can’t possibly imagine that his office endorsed the charges made public two days ago.
I say this for two reasons: timing and profitability. This scandal broke hours after Medvedev left the G-20 conference in Canada, days after a very successful, very warm-hearted visit by the Russian prez to CA and DC. Some observers have argued that Obama wants to send the message that the reset doesn’t mean America will go soft on Russian bad behavior. This, I guess, would be a manifestation of the White House’s “dual track” diplomacy with Moscow, pursuing arms control agreements while simultaneously protesting “the Russian occupation of Georgia.” But if that were true, what exactly did Washington gain from this grand act?
The 11 suspects are charged with “acting as agents of foreign governments within the United States without prior notification to the U.S. Attorney General” and nine of them also with “conspiracy to commit money laundering.” The former charge — the near-espionage-sounding crime — has a wimpy maximum penalty of just five years. The latter offense can get these people up to twenty years each — but this is still a far cry from threats to national security. (Read Julia Ioffe’s excellent piece about how inept and laughable this “spy ring” really was.)
So in the end, virtually nothing was gained from apprehending these extremely undangerous people, though the feds did manage to jeopardize the relationship between the world’s two greatest nuclear powers. People who credit Obama with the decision to make these arrests assume that he exercises total control over the U.S. government’s police infrastructure. In the spirit of this generosity, I’ll grant that Barack Obama is also all-powerful/smart enough to have realized that a “catch” like this would never be worth the diplomatic costs. It simply doesn’t make sense why anyone committed to the Reset would authorize or endorse the DOJ’s decision Monday.
That said, there’s no reason to assume that this is the work of the president’s enemies. Jesse Heath at The Russia Monitor offered the most plausible guess when he said, “I think there is a prosecutor in NY who has his eye on a political career.” This was a front page, public-eye collar — and the least outlandish, most boring (and therefore most realistic) explanation is that someone down the pecking order decided to make a name for himself. I certainly can’t come up with anything better.
(By the way, I recommend reading the entire post by Heath, as it’s one of the best general pieces on the Spy Ring yet.)
Never assume malice or conspiracy when incompetence and greed fits.