Whatever their failings, the 10 Russian agents kicked out of the U.S. earlier this month must have done something right to win the adoration of Russia's most famous former spy, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In a rare bit of candor about his private affairs, Putin described on Saturday, July 24, how he had personally welcomed the agents home with a pep talk and a patriotic sing-along. But some of his comments left experts scratching their heads. Why was he piling such praise on a group of spies who were, by most accounts, not very good at spying? And what exactly is the bright future he promised them now that they are comfortably back in Russia?
According to two veterans of Russia's foreign-intelligence service, most of the things Putin mentioned, including the serenade to Mother Russia, fit into the process of reintegration that spies normally undergo. When asked by a reporter at Saturday's press conference what the spies would do now, Putin said curtly, "They will work. I'm sure that they will have good jobs, and I'm sure that they will have interesting and bright lives."
This could mean different things for different members of the spy ring, says Mikhail Lyubimov, a retired colonel of the KGB and a renowned Cold War spy. The ones who kept a lower profile through the scandal could be given new identities and moved up within the ranks of the secret service, although it is unlikely that they would be sent back into the field, Lyubimov says. But those who have been more conspicuous, like Anna Chapman who was dubbed the femme fatale of the group after naked photos of her were leaked to the media should not hold out hope for a career among the warriors of the secret front.
"Some of them have just been too deeply compromised," Lyubimov says. It would be too dangerous to have them hanging around with other agents when fans are chasing them for autographs and pornographers are asking to feature them in their movies, as happened with Chapman last week. "So they will be offered jobs in government banks or other private firms controlled by the state," says Lyubimov. "This would be the normal practice."
Yet Chapman, for one, does not seem destined to melt back into obscurity. Last week, Angelina Jolie sent her a personal invitation to the Moscow premiere of Salt, a thriller in which Jolie plays a Russian spy. Although Chapman did not show up, a friend of hers, Cordelia Donovan, who lives in New York City and has been corresponding with Chapman via e-mail since her deportation, tells TIME the ex-spy had been very tempted. "She's a normal young woman. Why wouldn't she want to be on the red carpet?" Donovan asks. Even more tempting might be the chance to go into politics. The Liberal Democrats, a nationalist party, are considering a place for her on their ballot in the next parliamentary elections. "We've been discussing how we can bring her on board," party official Ivan Kosenko tells TIME.