Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 71

It was back to the future yesterday as a bizarre spy case threatened to further complicate relations between Russia and the United States less than six weeks before Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush hold summit talks in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Indeed, while there was nothing to indicate that the spy incident will precipitate a significant diplomatic row between the two countries, observers were quick to suggest that the timing was no coincidence. At present Russia and the United States find themselves at odds on a host of security issues, including strategic arms cuts, a Russian role in NATO, Iranian-Russian defense and nuclear cooperation, and, most recently and perhaps most significantly, a move by the Bush administration to curtail aid to Russia based on allegations that Moscow is failing to comply with treaties banning chemical and biological weapons. At the same time, the two countries remain embroiled in a trade dispute centered on Russian actions aimed at banning or limiting U.S. poultry exports to Russia.

Against this background, yesterday’s spy incident seems certain to be interpreted either as an effort by Moscow to exert diplomatic pressure on the United States in the run up to the May summit meeting or, more likely, as a gambit by hardline Russian security forces already unhappy over the Kremlin’s sharp turn toward the West since September 11. But whatever the motivations behind yesterday’s news announcements, the details of the alleged spy incident seem at this early stage sure to raise more than a few questions about the seriousness of the Russian charges.

According to representatives of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) quoted on Russian news programs last night, two U.S. diplomatic personnel–one operating in Moscow and the other in an unnamed CIS country–are being accused of involvement in a CIA operation aimed at acquiring Russian military secrets and information on CIS-Russian military-technical cooperation. According to the same sources, an employee at a Russian Defense Ministry installation identified only as Viktor was the target of the operation. He was said to have visited a U.S. embassy in another former Soviet republic last spring in order to get information about a relative who had gone missing abroad. The man reportedly had access to some military secrets, and the FSB claimed that U.S. embassy officials had secretly slipped him psychotropic drugs in order to get information out of him.

Indeed, according to the FSB account, the man was found a week later wandering the streets in shock and with amnesia. “He was brought to Moscow,” an FSB officer told Russian NTV, where the FSB “did some tests on him, and we established that he had known some government secrets and that he had been under psychoactive drug treatment for a long time.” Once the man had managed to reconstruct what had allegedly happened to him at the U.S. embassy, the FSB then took the necessary steps “to stop the leak of Russian secrets… and unmask the Langley employees who used the most unscrupulous methods.” The FSB said that the operation had been halted before it did any damage to Russian security. It also embellished the story a bit more with details involving the alleged use by the American operatives of invisible ink and secret drop points.

The FSB also identified two of the alleged American perpetrators–David Robertson, said only to have been posted to an unnamed embassy in another former Soviet republic, and Yunju Kensinger, identified as a third secretary in the consular department of the U.S. embassy in Moscow. State-controlled Russian ORT television reportedly broadcast grainy footage of a woman identified as Kensinger as she walked with other embassy employees. An FSB representative said that Kensinger was an employee of the CIA, and “informed sources” were quoted as saying that she had already left Russia, although they did not specify when.

It was unclear yesterday what will happen next. Officials at the U.S. embassy in Moscow and the CIA in Washington reportedly declined to comment on the case. At the same time, Interfax quoted those same “informed sources” as saying that Moscow might lodge a protest–presumably a formal one–with the United States over the incident. It is interesting, and perhaps noteworthy, that news of the spy scandal broke while Putin was out of the country on an official visit to Germany. Assuming that he knew of the FSB investigation, that would provide Putin some distance from an incident likely to irritate Washington. At the same time, some in Moscow may suggest that yesterday’s events were in fact the result of hardline personnel in Russia’s security service making use of Putin’s absence to deliberately precipitate an incident which would raise tensions between Russia and the United States. Given Putin’s own background in the security services, that seems unlikely. But the perception could serve the Kremlin by further fueling speculation in the West that Putin is under fire at home for his pro-American, pro-Western policies, and that he therefore needs to be rewarded for the services he has rendered Washington (Reuters, AP, Interfax, NTV, April 10).