Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 69

Relations between Russia and the United States, seen by many to be on the upswing since Vladimir Putin’s ascent to the Russian presidency, took a fresh hit yesterday following the arrest of a U.S. citizen on espionage charges. Little information was immediately available on the case from either Russian or American government sources. A statement issued by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB)–the country’s chief counterintelligence organization and the main successor organization to the Soviet-era KGB–described the arrested American both as the head of a private firm and as a man who had earlier worked for U.S. intelligence. It did not identify him. Also arrested, according to the FSB, was a Russian citizen identified as a specialist in defense technology at a Moscow organization and accused of being an accomplice of the unnamed American.

The FSB claimed that “materials obtained during the course of the investigation shows the [American] deliberately established contacts over a long period of time with Russian scientists in Moscow, Novosibirsk (Siberia) and other cities of our country with a view to collecting information comprising Russian state secrets. The FSB also claimed to have found a large number of incriminating documents on the U.S. citizen. They included technical plans of different military plants and recordings of conversations with Russian citizens working in the defense industry. Additionally, the FSB claimed to have a large amount of foreign currency on the Russian citizen who was also detained. Russia’s NTV mentioned the seizure of documents on sophisticated rockets for submarines and said that some US$30,000 had been seized. It also quoted FSB sources as saying that the American could receive from ten to twenty years in jail if convicted. The Russian faces a maximum seven-year sentence.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said that no formal charges had yet been filed against the American. The man had been visited by a U.S. embassy consular representative in Moscow and had reportedly made no complaints of mistreatment. According to Rubin, the detained American had also “indicated that he expects this matter to be resolved in a short time.” White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said that the Clinton administration was in touch with the man’s family, but refused to say whether he had been working for a US agency. “I understand he was in Moscow on business,” Mr. Lockhart said.

This latest spy row comes several months after Cheri Leberknight, a diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, was expelled from Moscow late last year after having allegedly been caught seeking military secrets from a Russian citizen. In retaliation, the United States expelled a Russian diplomat, Stanislav Gusev, for having used an electronic bug to eavesdrop on the State Department (see the Monitor, December 1, 10). But Moscow has been embroiled in a series of other spy incidents in recent months as well. Just last month the FSB announced that it had arrested a Russian citizen on charges of having spied for Great Britain (see the Monitor, March 17). In January of this year, moreover, Poland and Russia engaged in a far more extensive espionage row, as Moscow responded to Warsaw’s expulsion of nine Russian diplomats on charges of spying with a matching expulsion of nine Polish diplomats from Russia (see the Monitor, January 21, 24).

Russian intelligence officials often assert that arrests for espionage are generally made less for reasons related purely to intelligence than for broader political and diplomatic ones. But it is unclear precisely what Moscow is hoping to gain from its most recent spy rows, and those with Britain and the United States in particular. It is certainly true that Russian FSB officials are walking with their old swagger once again. That is a product of their broader political resurgence over the past year and of the election more recently of one of their own–ex-FSB chief Vladimir Putin–to the Russian presidency. Spokesmen for the FSB repeatedly claim that Western intelligence services have stepped up their activities in Russia, and they have depicted arrests like the one that occurred yesterday as proof of the FSB’s success in parrying these blows. Yet Moscow claims also to want improved relations with the West, and demonstrations of this sort do little to promote that goal. Last month’s British-Russian spy row was particularly noteworthy in this regard. It appeared expressly designed to embarrass British Prime Minister Tony Blair only days after he had made a politically risky trip to St. Petersburg for talks with Putin (see the Monitor, March 13).

It remains to be seen, but this latest arrest by the FSB may have something to do with stepped up efforts by Russian authorities to chill contacts between Russian and foreign defense researchers. Several Russian nuclear researchers–all with noteworthy foreign contacts or affiliations–have been arrested or investigated in recent months. Given what reports say is the accused American’s background with U.S. intelligence, the arrest may also parallel a much earlier incident. In November 1996 Russian intelligence officials angrily denounced the FBI for its arrest of a Russian citizen–Vladimir Galkin–who had visited the United States several years after reportedly having retired from Russia’s foreign intelligence service. Russian officials called the arrest a dirty trick and warned that they might look to retaliate. At least in part for this reason, U.S. authorities ultimately dropped the charges against Galkin and freed him to return to Russia.