Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 222

Even less information was available yesterday about the arrest in Moscow of Cheri Leberknight, who serves as the second secretary in the U.S. Embassy’s political section. In comments made on Russian television, a spokesman for the FSB said that a U.S. diplomat had been caught red-handed “attempting to receive state secrets about our military-strategic plans and military-strategic complex.” Other reports suggested that Leberknight was collecting information about Russian nuclear weapons. The U.S. diplomat was reportedly held in the presence of a U.S. consul and was then turned over to the embassy. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told reporters yesterday that such incidents do little to improve ties between the two countries, but said nevertheless that Moscow hopes that the arrest will “not interfere” with broader relations between Russia and the United States. He called on Leberknight to leave Russia soon.

The arrest provided Moscow with an opportunity to crow about the prowess of its intelligence operations. The FSB spokesman, Aleksandr Zdanovich, said that Russian agents would not have moved against an accredited diplomat unless it was sure of its charges. “It is senseless to deny anything,” he said. “The FSB has absolute evidence of the spying.” He also dismissed what he said was the impression among foreign intelligence services that “Russian counterintelligence is unable to fend off their activities in Russia due to economic reasons.” He described intelligence work as a “duel of intellects,” and suggested that Russia is better able to wage this sort of war than are the “intelligence services of the world’s richest countries” (Reuters, AP, ITN, Russian agencies, November 30).

The cockiness Zdanovich displayed yesterday was undoubtedly the result of political factors which go beyond the detention of the U.S. diplomat. Russia’s current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, is a former FSB director and a career intelligence officer. His assent to the top government post was part of a broader surge of political influence for Russia’s intelligence community–a surge which has only increased since Putin’s appointment as premier. Like the hardline military leadership, the FSB–which is the main successor organization to the KGB–is also profiting politically from the successful (thus far) prosecution of the war in Chechnya, and from the more general rise of Cold War-style tensions between Russia and the West. Under such conditions, these groups have to some extent reassumed the swagger and reclaimed the elan of their Soviet-era predecessors. For at least the time being, moreover, they are becoming a bigger part of the foreign and security policymaking process.