Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 147

Only two days after Russia’s Supreme Court overturned a conviction on spying charges against one Russian diplomat (see the Monitor, July 27), a Moscow court yesterday sentenced another to eleven years’ imprisonment in a separate espionage case. Platon Obukhov, the son of a former Soviet deputy foreign minister, had been arrested in 1996 on charges of spying for Britain. The 32-year-old Obukhov was a junior Russian diplomat who had served in the North American section of the Russian Foreign Ministry prior to his arrest by agents from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). The FSB claimed to have evidence that Obukhov had been working for the British intelligence service since July 1995. The case was of immediate significance because triggered a tit-for-tat series of expulsions which ultimately saw four British diplomats booted from Russia and the same number of Russian diplomats from England. It was the most serious diplomatic row to occur between the two countries since 1989, when each side expelled eleven diplomats.

But the Obukhov case has been an especially unusual one because of claims by Obukhov’s lawyer that he suffers from schizophrenia and cannot be held accountable for his actions. His family, in turn, says that he is insane, and his mother has claimed that he has the mental capacity of a six-year-old. Obukhov himself has contributed to the strangeness of the case. He reportedly appeared in television interviews wearing a dunce cap and sounding incoherent. He has also written spy thrillers and, according to his lawyer, was acting out fantasies and gathering materials for his books when he spied for the British. Investigations into Obukhov’s mental state, and treatment in jail for mental illness, complicated his case and repeatedly delayed the holding of his trial. Obukhov’s lawyer has also said that she would appeal his conviction and that, because he was denied a fair trial and has a record of mental illness, Obukhov’s parents have legal grounds to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights (BBC, Reuters, UPI, July 27).

There have been suggestions that the case of Valentin Moiseev, the former Russian diplomat whose treason charges were overturned this week, was yet another example of Russia’s resurgent intelligence agencies using trumped up charges to convict an official who had cultivated close ties with foreigners (see yesterday’s Monitor). That does not appear to be the case with regard to Obukhov, though, if his lawyer is to be believed, the FSB did violate legal procedures while interrogating Obukhov and gathering evidence against him. What the Obukhov case does appear to reflect, however, is the fact that the end of the Cold War has not brought an end to the struggle between Russian and foreign intelligence agencies. Indeed, Russia’s intelligence establishment has long argued that foreign espionage activities on Russian soil have actually increased since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They have used that charge–as part of a broader effort to whip up more general fears of the outside world–to help rebuild their own political influence in Russia and to power the current backtracking which appears to be taking place with regard to the protection of human rights in Russia.