The Russian Spy Caper: So Funny, Except When It's Not

  • Share
  • Read Later
Shirley Shepard / AFP / Getty Images

This drawing, dated June 28, 2010, shows 5 of the 10 suspected Russian operatives in a New York courtroom

Leave it to the Russians to not understand that the Cold War is dead and buried. The 10 alleged deep-cover operatives who were arrested on Monday may number more spies than were here in the 1950s, when there was a real possibility of war between the U.S. and Russia. (An 11th suspect was apprehended in Cyprus but released on bail.) You have to wonder what the Russians could have been thinking to spend the tens of millions of dollars that such an espionage infrastructure costs. Were they planning for a new Cold War?

The other odd thing is that the suspected Russian operatives seem to have been stuck with a Cold War spy's craft, with secret writing, dead drops and money stashes. What was wrong with flying to Europe to meet your control officer once a month? On top of that, there was a comic sloppiness to the whole operation. At one point, an undercover FBI agent introduced himself to one of the suspects, claiming to be a substitute-control officer. Not only did the alleged Russian operative fall for it, she didn't notice that afterward, she was followed by more undercover FBI agents to a Verizon store, where they observed her buying a prepaid phone card. They then observed her as she apparently dropped the Verizon bag into a trash can — with the receipt in it. The name on it was Irene Kutsov — not the Americanized alias she reportedly used in the U.S. — and the address "99 Fake Street." Indeed, the suspects were not charged with espionage but, much less glamorously, conspiring to act as unauthorized foreign agents and conspiring to commit money laundering. Moscow has called the accusations baseless.

We can all laugh at this bad version of Get Smart, but the disturbing side of it is the suggestion that Russian intelligence has not grown up since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — and that probably means neither has the Kremlin. You only have to consider the detailed "tasking" the Russian operatives were allegedly asked to pursue, like uncovering America's "secret" policy on Iran. Doesn't the Kremlin understand that even with the Obama Administration, you can figure that out from the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or conferences sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute? Or take the tasking on the CIA's leadership. Wouldn't it have been a lot cheaper for Moscow to open an Amazon account and start buying up memoirs written by former CIA operatives? Unlike in Russia, the CIA pretty much lets its operatives write what they want about its leadership, including the good and the bad.

What should worry us about these arrests is that Russia assumes we are still playing the Great Game in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and apparently believes there's still a global zero-sum game going on. Does Russia think that if the U.S. were to miraculously stabilize Afghanistan and install a government friendly to the West that Moscow would somehow lose?

But it's really Iran that is at play here. It's unfortunate that Russia does not understand that we absolutely need Moscow as a full-fledged ally to contain that country. If Russia, still acting as if we're in the Cold War, thinks it can turn Iran into a permanent thorn in our side in the Middle East, that very well could lead to a catastrophe we would both suffer from. Let's just hope it is only Russian intelligence that's out of tune with the times, and not the Kremlin.

If I were President Obama, I would quickly release the suspected operatives, send them back to Moscow with bottles of champagne and follow that up with a visit by the Secretary of State to ask what it is the Kremlin doesn't know about the U.S. that it wants to know.

Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.