Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 25

Already testy relations between Russia and the United States took another hit last week when reports surfaced that a Russian diplomat had defected to the United States this past October. Few details of the case have been made public, but Russian irritation with the way in which Washington has handled the case adds one more point of friction to relations already grown tense over missile defense, the recent arrest of Pavel Borodin, Russian moves to tar the United States for its use of depleted uranium during NATO’s air war in Yugoslavia, and general but obvious indications from the Bush administration that it is going to take a harder line in relations with Moscow than did its predecessor.

News of the Russian defection first emerged on January 30, when unnamed U.S. officials were quoted as saying that a Russian diplomat and his family had quietly defected to the United States this past October. The diplomat was later identified as Sergei Tretyakov, a first secretary to the Russian mission in the United States. U.S. officials provided no information as to why Tretyakov had defected, or on what legal grounds his defection might be based, given that Russia is no longer a totalitarian state. He is apparently the first high-ranking Russian diplomat to defect since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Initial reports were not clear as to who exactly Tretyakov might be. Some suggested that he was the same Sergei Tretyakov who had served as Russian ambassador to Iran in 1996, and that his defection might therefore have been connected to the intelligence he could provide the United States regarding Russian-Iranian relations. A Russian source, however, quoting officials in the Foreign Ministry, said that the former Russian ambassador to Iran in fact now works as the deputy director of a department dealing with relations between Russia and the CIS states. Another Russian source, meanwhile, said that while the Tretyakov who had defected was but one of about a dozen first secretaries posted to Russia’s UN mission in New York, he was in fact the “righthand man” of Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sergei Lavrov.

Given the secrecy which has surrounded the defection, at least one Russian source speculated last week that Tretyakov was actually an intelligence officer who was working in New York under diplomatic cover. In line with this, the newspaper Kommersant (and other sources) also suggested that, if Tretyakov and his family had merely wanted to remain in the United States following the end of his posting, he would most likely have been able to arrange that without too much trouble. But the air of mystery surrounding his actions suggested that more was at play than the mere wish of a Russian diplomat to stay in America.

Meanwhile, last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry made clear its displeasure following the disclosure of Tretyakov’s disappearance. A ministry spokesman complained that Russian officials had in fact been trying to arrange a meeting with Tretyakov since he disappeared from his post last October under “unexplained circumstances.” The spokesman also made it clear that the United States had rebuffed these efforts. Moscow appeared particularly angry over what it suggested was the newly installed Bush administration’s decision to “leak” the information about Tretyakov’s defection. “Rejecting our legal right [to see Tretyakov], the U.S. side at the same time for unknown reasons raised this question with journalists.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevgeny Voronin expressed surprise at what he called the “new style” shown by the State Department, and expressed what he said was Moscow’s hope that the incident was a result of the new administration’s “inexperience.” Whether by coincidence or otherwise, the news of Tretyakov’s defection become public on the same day that Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had his first telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (AP, January 30, February 2; Reuters, January 31, February 1; Kommersant, February 1; Russian agencies, January 31; Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 1).

A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), finally, suggested last week that the U.S. decision to “leak” the news of Tretyakov’s defection was in fact but another phase in a now long-running series of clashes between the Russian and American secret services. The spokesman went on to speculate that the Americans might have leaked the information about Tretyakov in retaliation for the appearance in Britain only a few days earlier of a book called “The Big Breach: From Top Secret to Maximum Security” (Segodnya, February 1). The British government had tried to ban the book–written by former MI6 agent Richard Tomlinson–on the grounds that it breached the Official Secrets Act and put agents at risk. Tomlinson decided to publish the book in Russia to circumvent the restrictions, and there have been rumors that the SVR played a role in the book’s production. More than 1,500 copies were reportedly brought into Britain by an online Russian information company (AP, January 30; Reuters, January 25).