By M K Bhadrakumar
Spy stories are never quite what they seem. Having dealt with India-Pakistan relations for donkey's years as a career diplomat, I can tell you that. Spy stories may have happy endings or unhappy endings but the narrative is seldom straight. In fact, the actual narrative is not even meant for onlookers, who should satisfy themselves with savoring the seductive details.
The post-Soviet era's first Cold War-era spy story that erupted this week in Washington DC is no exception. As Britain's Guardian newspaper put it, "This story about the Russian spy ring living undetected in American suburbia will end up being turned into a film. It has to be. It's got everything - the long shadows and uncomfortable paranoia of a classic Cold War film, the hidden identities and dark secrets of an introspective piece by British playwright Stephen Poliakoff and the zany, fish-out-of-water antics of say Uncle Buck, the family comedy starring John Candy.
Yet, the plot is pitiably thin. It seems to have been patched together in unseemly hurry. The United States Department of Justice said on Monday that 11 people had been charged as "unlawful agents of the Russian Federation within the United States". But did they spy on the US government? No, it seems they were not interested in penetrating the US government and apparently produced remarkably little espionage. As things stand, the main charge against them could be, yes, money laundering. The outlines of the story are indeed bizarre.
The mission of the "embedded" Russian spies was apparently to worm their way into the upper echelons of US decision-making. Towards this end, they took on American identities and embarked on a normal American lifestyle - little knowing that despite their top-notch training at the KGB school back home the Central Intelligence Agency was all along stalking them, their movements, their contacts, their antics - even their love life. By way of the normal intercourse of conjugal bliss, they even begat children who are now caught up in a tragic grey zone not even knowing who they indeed were, are and can be. Are they Russian children? Yes. Or, are they American children? Yes, too.
What emerges from present indications is that these Russian agents were infiltrated into the US during the Boris Yeltsin era (1991-1999) when the US and Russia thought they had a great thing going between them. Just as well that the American with whom the Russian leadership first raised the matter is, well, former US president Bill Clinton. While doing that at a Moscow meeting, according to the Russian media, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin resorted to the informal address of "ty" instead of the formal "vy".
Now, anyone who speaks Russian will tell that the subtle shift of address made a big point in itself. There is a rumor floating around among locals in Moscow that Putin addresses President Dmitry Medvedev as "ty", while the latter sticks to the formal "vy".
Anyway, Putin told Clinton, "Your police have gotten out of hand, and people are being thrown in jail. I hope the positive developments that have accumulated recently will not be damaged. We hope people who cherish Russian-America relations understand this."
Putin then added somewhat intriguingly, "I'd like to see you more often. You've come at just the right time." Indeed, Putin has a way of conveying things.
We don’t know how Clinton responded. The official Russian propaganda is that the Americans have concocted the entire spy scandal by vested interests in the US for putting President Barack Obama's "reset" policy with Russia on the back foot. It is a contrived explanation and lacks credibility. Washington quickly clarified that Obama was in the loop on what the US agencies had been doing on the trail of the Russian spies and implying that no undercutting of the Oval Office is conceivable.
All the same, the question arises: why has the Obama administration resorted to such a thorough tarnishing of Russia at this juncture? Medvedev has been making a strenuous effort to establish that "Russia is changing" within a "changing world", to use his words at the recent St Petersburg annual economic summit that is commonly dubbed as the Russian Davos.
Over the past 72 hours, Medvedev has been pushed back to ground zero as far as Russia's image in the West goes. The British press have gone to town, gleefully grabbing the terrific opportunity to mock Russia and make it look a very strange nation still coddling bad Cold War habits that refuse to go away.
Second, why has Obama risked his "reset" with Moscow? After all, from all accounts he seems to have had a great summit meeting with Medvedev in Washington last week and they established a close rapport. Within no time the spy scandal breaks out. Yet, Obama knows how brilliantly the "reset" is working for the US and why it should remain on course at the very least so long as he has that annoying, terrible problem to grapple with in the Persian Gulf - Iran. And this was a problem, unless deftly handled, that once cut short Jimmy Carter's promising political life in the White House to a single term.
In the entire episode of the spy scandal so far, Medvedev has kept mum. The big question is whether this is Medvedev's Matthias Rust moment.
Any longtime chronicler of Russian-American relations will recall the dramatic episode in May 1987 when a 19-year-old amateur German pilot, Matthias Rust, flew a rented Cessna aircraft to Moscow from Helsinki, hoodwinking the formidable Soviet air defense systems and improbably landed on the cobbled stones of Red Square in Moscow right in front of Vladimir Lenin's mausoleum, to the utter shock of the ceremonial guards manning the ramparts of the Kremlin.
No one cares even today who Rust was and whether he acted on his own. For those of us assigned as diplomats in Moscow at that time, it took an instant to figure out what a devastating blow the incident would inflict on the Soviet military establishment. The escapade took place at a most critical phase of the then Communist Party of the Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's political consolidation.
We, the foreign diplomats interminably gossiping, were for once spot on. Gorbachev seized the incident to dismiss hundreds of Defense Ministry officials who were doggedly opposing perestroika (opening up), including defense minister Sergei Sokolov and the air defense chief Aleksandr Koldunov.
Gorbachev literally tore into the Defense Ministry and by 1988 perstroika touched its high-water mark. The rest, as they say, is history.
Is Obama signaling something to Medvedev? The fact remains that Obama has been deliberately puffing up Medvedev as the man the Western world can do business with. During his last visit to Moscow, Obama studiously downgraded his interaction with Putin. The US media too never once misses the chance to put down Putin, while treating Medvedev with velvet gloves.
However, ultimately, the gnawing worry remains within the Obama administration that Putin still commands immense support among the Russians and he has a formidable power base. From the US's point of view, time is running out as the next presidential election in Russia due in 2012 draws close. Not a day passes with the Russian press not having one feature at least weighing in which direction the Medvedev-Putin "tandem" is likely to tilt in the run-up to that election.
Obama has reason to be worried. Medvedev, after all, has shown little stomach so far for challenging the so-called siloviki in Russia, meaning politicians from the security or military services. How can the "reset" of relations with Russia go on to touch newer heights, how can Medvedev's zest for "innovation" and "reform" be taken seriously, how can Russia be treated as a "normal" European country, how can it be ensured that Putin doesn't get re-elected as president in 2012 - so long as the siloviki calls the shots in the corridors of power in the Kremlin?
This is the question haunting the Obama administration. The spy scandal rubbishes the image of Russia's spy engine. It has been made to look clumsy, archaic and unreliable. The incident also points to the existence of an American mole at a very high rung of the Russian spy agency's echelons at its Federal Security Service headquarters in Moscow.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.