Putin's U.S. 'Spy' Has Served His Purpose

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Edmond Pope sits behind bars during his espionage trial in Moscow

Did the conviction of American businessman Edmond Pope on spying charges, and then official recommendations that he be pardoned, come as a surprise in Moscow?

"No, not really. There had been a general expectation that he would be convicted and then pardoned or released for humanitarian reasons. What President Putin and his KGB crowd are trying to do is show the Russian people how tough they are. At the same time, they wouldn't want to make the other side's position too difficult, and making a humanitarian gesture by releasing a convicted man who is suffering from cancer helps to improve their image in the West. So perhaps in their Byzantine Soviet way, they deem it in their best interest to first convict him and then release him."

Will Pope be used as a bargaining chip?

"Only if Moscow has something it wants to bargain over. As far as I know, no Russian spies are currently being held in the U.S. They're more likely to use him as a political chip than a bargaining chip. By making the gesture of releasing him, they show that they're 'stern but just.' Like the old joke about Stalin: a young boy asks his grandfather about Stalin, and the grandfather replies that Comrade Stalin was stern but just. Once at a party congress Stalin was speaking when somebody in the hall sneezed. 'Who sneezed?' Stalin demanded. Silence. So he made the first row stand up and had them all shot. Then the second row. Eventually, someone near the back of the hall called out to confess. 'Bless you, comrade,' Stalin answered. 'You see,' says the grandfather, 'stern but just.' And 'stern but just' is the sort of image the current leadership is trying to project."

How strong was the evidence against Pope?

"I'm not a lawyer, so it's difficult to assess these things. But his lawyers did make a strong point that the technical documentation on Russian torpedoes that this man is charged with procuring is easily available in the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and even Kyrgyszstan. And, of course, Pope did not originally solicit the documents from the Russian agency concerned, they had approached him."

It was a sting operation?

"No, something a lot more common in today's Russia. The Russian officials had approached him in good faith, because they wanted to make money. But somewhere along the line the FSB [security service] got wind of it and came down heavily."

Was Pope a victim of the changed political climate from the Yeltsin era to the Putin era?

"Not just a change of leadership, but of the whole political paradigm of this country. Right now there's a genuine popular sentiment, stirred up by the rabble-rouser at the top, that Russia is besieged by hostile forces, that the whole world is against us, and that there are spies everywhere. People believe this sort of thing because of the traumas this society has suffered in the last decade. Xenophobia is on the rise, and in this psychological climate, this Pope thing is useful. The outcome of the trial may have been predetermined. It will be used as a political device to show Russians that President Putin is strong and tough, and then by releasing him to show Americans that he's also very forgiving."