06.29.10

Russia Is Laughing at Us

The unlikely saga of the spies known as The Illegals has caused much mirth, but no diplomatic crisis, with Russia. Julia Ioffe talks to Russian officials who can't stop laughing.

Boris Reznik, a parliamentarian from Russia’s ruling party, has a take on the spy saga now unfolding in the U.S.: “Why are you causing this scandal?” he says, chuckling. “Watch out, or we’ll arrest all your spies here in Moscow! You guys have more of them here.”

Aside from the unfortunate timing of the event—coming just on the heels of Dmitry Medvedev’s honeymoon in the U.S. and at the G-8 summit—the roundup of the supposed Russian spy ring, known as The Illegals, has become some kind of strange American joke in Moscow. “It’s kind of unclear, and kind of stupid, and looks a bit like what we had here with that rock,” says Putin’s former chief of staff, the longtime Kremlin player Alexander Voloshin. He, too, laughs at the mention of the alleged spies. The rock he refers to is the 2006 incident when the Russian security services accused the British of using a rock to spy on them in Moscow. “It has about the same flavor,” Voloshin says, still trying to shake the giggles.

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Sure, Russian officials have expressed hurt at the timing: Couldn’t they have waited a few months, you know, for the afterglow to pass after the high-level burger summit? And, behaving not unlike a woman scorned, Russians wonder: Who is trying to break America and us up?

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But mostly the tale of The Illegals is seen as some kind of joke. The foreign ministry has issued just one statement; the Duma has asked for clarification, but that’s it, as far as seriousness goes. The president is mum. And the prime minister, a man who in his days as president would surely have lashed out with salty words—and, perhaps, a snot metaphor—is mute, as are his loyal security services. No one is making a move to kick out American representatives or arrest any American spies—or, indeed, the foreign journalists working in Moscow, who, in trying to discover policy outlines on the START treaty by talking to think tank experts, are doing pretty much what these supposed Russian spies did.

Philip Shenon: The Spy Ring’s Ripple Effects At a meeting with former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday, Vladimir V. Putin, the prime minister and a former spy himself, said, “Your police have gotten carried away, putting people in jail.” But he played down the episode: “I really expect that the positive achievements that have been made in our intergovernmental relations lately will not be damaged by the latest events.”

And no one is assailing the Obama administration or America as a whole, accusing it, as they would have during the Bush days, of trying to humiliate or vilify Russia. “The reaction has been minimal,” says Sergey Markov, a Duma deputy who chairs parliament’s council on global politics. “We’re trying not to spoil the relationship, to minimize the damage.”

Instead, the Russians, as is their wont, see a conspiracy. “America is a well-thought-out country,” one political aide told me. “It doesn’t do anything ‘just because.’ So if there is a huge uproar, why do they need it? And I think that you need to look not outside, but inside.”

In other words, Russia has nothing to do with this. The supposed spies, apparently, are an American domestic matter.

“The White House has lost control,” military analyst Evgeny Khrushchev told Russia Today, the Kremlin-backed news channel. “Beltway bandits have regained the initiative. Conservatives are hijacking the agenda. They are actively against resetting relations with Russia.”

Another theory is that this is an American military insurrection. “This is a protest of sorts,” Markov theorized. “It’s the military establishment’s démarche against Obama. If McChrystal, who is a serious general, accused him of unprofessionalism, it’s probably not only McChrystal who thinks this—that he is unprofessional and a pacifist.”

Or, some speculate, the unlikely tale is a product of overzealous U.S. intelligence. “Our intelligence services love distractions, your intelligence services love distractions,” Reznik told me, preferring, like many Russians, to see America as similar to Russia only with a better haircut. “If they don’t have work, they make work.” (Given the timeline of the FBI surveillance of The Illegals, this could be a byproduct of the snooping boom brought about by the War on Terror.)

Of course, no one is denying that there are Russian spies operating in America. “How do you not spy on Bush if he’s the most powerful man on the planet, and he periodically consults with God?” scoffed Markov, the Duma deputy.

So if spies in America and spies in Russia are a given, say the Russians, this whole mess is not about Russia in the slightest.

The utterly bizarre complaint filed in a Manhattan federal court doesn’t dispel that notion, and might offer hints why Russians wouldn’t rush to claim these particular spies.

First of all, there is a spy ring that is tasked with gleaning “ information on the U.S. position with respect to a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty”… from New Jersey. Federal agents describe two operatives who can barely use their computers, and talk with awe of a super high-tech, state-of-the-art communication device known as the WiFi. Invisible ink makes an appearance in the complaint as does Morse Code, which, of course, is pretty uncrackable. And then there are the spies who bury cash in an open field and pass sensitive (think tank?) data to each other publicly… in bright orange bags. Not to mention the awkward Mata Hari, Anna Chapman, who buys a temporary Verizon phone using a fake name and the fake address at “99 Fake Street.”

Russians note that this motley crew hasn’t even been charged with spying. Instead, they stand accused of failing to register as foreign agents (maximum sentence five years) and money laundering (which could carry 20). And reading this complaint, it seems much more likely that a rogue element in the Russian secret service needed to launder some stolen cash and stumbled on some starry-eyed American suburban yokels and asked: “Hey, wanna be a spy?”

The American press is loudly invoking the late Le Carré. But to the Russians, it feels a lot more like Pink Panther. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that these spies are as real as Saddam’s atomic bomb,” Markov says, once again laughing.

Julia Ioffe is a journalist living in Moscow. She has written for Foreign Policy, The New Yorker, The New Republic, and Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Read her blog, The Moscow Diaries, at True/Slant.