Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 125

The case of John Tobin, the twenty-four-year-old American Fulbright scholar jailed earlier this year on a contentious drug possession charge in Russia, took yet another strange turn when authorities of the Federal Security Service (FSB) hinted this week that he is now once again under suspicion on espionage charges. The new allegations were made publicly by Pavel Bolshunov, an FSB spokesman from the Voronezh region, who told the Russian NTV television station on June 26 that authorities had found evidence to back up an earlier claim that Tobin was involved with U.S. intelligence services. Bolshunov said that a Russian scientist by the name of Dmitry Kuznetsov had identified Tobin as the man who had interrogated him back in 1998 when Kuznetsov found himself in the Connecticut state prison on fraud charges. According to Bolshunov’s version of events, Tobin had been identified to Kuznetsov as an FBI agent and had offered him lenient treatment and money if the Russian scientist agreed to cooperate. Bolshunov also claimed that Kuznetsov had come forward with this information after seeing pictures of Tobin on television. “Kuznetsov’s evidence shows,” the FSB officials said, “that we were right while suspecting Tobin to be a U.S. intelligence agent.”

Tobin was arrested on a drug possession charge outside a Voronezh nightclub this past January. His case took a first unusual turn when, amid a suddenly escalating spy row between Washington and Moscow, FSB officials suddenly suggested that Tobin faced espionage charges of his own. That did not happen, but Russian authorities did trump up the drug charges against Tobin and on April 27 he was sentenced to thirty-seven months in jail. That ruling was itself thrown out on appeal, however, and earlier this month the sentence was slashed to one year. Tobin continued, meanwhile, to proclaim his complete innocence with regard to the drug charges, and also claimed that his arrest had in fact been carried out in retribution for the fact that he had spurned an effort by Russia’s security services to recruit him.

The latest turn of events in Tobin’s case is particularly bizarre because of the character of the man who is now reportedly giving evidence against him. Dmitry Kuznetsov was apparently a respected scientist during the Soviet period, but his career over the past decade or so has been checkered at best. His arrest on fraud charges in the United States is but one indication of some of the troubles that he has encountered with regard to his financial practices. A turn to religion and a high-profile involvement in scientific creationism has also earned him many detractors because of related accusations of dishonest scholarship. A Russian account of Tobin’s case this week includes remarks by a former U.S. colleague who describes Kuznetsov as a “liar and a sociopath” and who says that he “would have strong doubts about anything that Kuznetsov has to say on any subject.”

Tobin’s Russian lawyer, meanwhile, has pointed to a fairly prosaic reason for the FSB’s latest accusations against Tobin, namely, that his case is due to be reviewed again soon on second appeal and the FSB wants to avoid having the weakness of its original case against Tobin made public. The lawyer, Maxim Bayev, also suggested that the new accusations were unlikely to result in any new charges because there was no substantiation for them and, even if Kuznetsov’s accusations could be substantiated, it is no crime for an American to interrogate a Russian citizen on U.S. soil.

The United States government, meanwhile, has ridiculed the notion that Tobin could face further punishment on the espionage charges. State Department Richard Boucher was quoted on June 26 as saying that allegations of Tobin having worked for U.S. intelligence in 1998 could not be substantiated, and that Tobin, in any case, was only twenty years old at the time and a student in Vermont: “‘Doesn’t quite match the allegation,’ I’d say.” Connecticut correction officials have likewise said this week that they have no record of Tobin visiting any state prison between December of 1997 and May of 1998, the period in which Kuznetsov was incarcerated (AP, Reuters, NTV, Russian agencies, June 26; Moscow Times, Vremya Novostei, Washington Post, New York Times, June 27; AFP, June 26-28).

Should his upcoming appeal not result in an acquittal for Tobin, however, the latest Russian accusations could nevertheless increase pressure on the Bush administration to push harder for the U.S. student’s release. The issue was apparently not raised during the Russian-U.S. summit meeting that occurred earlier this month. But the case has attracted the attention of U.S. lawmakers, and Connecticut congressman James Maloney, who has been pushing for Tobin’s release, said this week that he intended to write a letter requesting President George W. Bush to personally bring up Tobin’s case with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The timing of the FSB’s new campaign against Tobin, meanwhile, can only raise additional questions about the extent to which the apparently friendly summit meeting between Bush and Putin actually served to improve Russian-U.S. ties.