The cold war just isn’t what it used to be. More Spies Like Us than The Spy Who Loved Me, last week’s Russian-American espionage exchange had all the makings of a chilling Glienicke Bridge spy swap—until it didn’t. At least in John Landis’s comedy, Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd were actually able to do some good with their limited training and avert Armageddon. In contrast, the ten Russian spies, now duly deported, have been ridiculed both in Russia and in the United States for engaging in breathlessly surreptitious ineptitude.
Charles McCarry drolly summed up the public’s evaluation of the story in a New York Times op-ed on Friday, writing, “These Russian spies were so inept that they weren’t even charged with spying. Instead, they were given a good talking-to and, in effect, released into the custody of their guardians. Being forbidden to go on pretending that they were Americans was punishment enough.” Times television critic Alessandra Stanley compared the Russians to the spies in another Dan Aykroyd vehicle, Coneheads. And in noting all of the pertinent, homeland-security details, the New York Post labeled superspy Anna Chapman as “sexy,” a “femme fatale” and a “vixen,” taking care to let readers know that while in court, “her sexy figure [was] hidden by her baggy beige jumpsuit.”
So what’s really going on here? Perhaps the most meaningful result of the scandal is that both short- and long-term repercussions seem quite minuscule. This isn’t a Gary Powers situation, and not even a flurry of vulgar, Khrushchev-style Ukrainian folk proverbs can drape the fear and loathing of 1960 around Anna Chapman’s sexy figure. Mitt Romney’s and Senator Jon Kyl’s paranoiac The-Russians-Are-Coming hysteria notwithstanding, Obama’s and Medvedev’s New START Treaty still enjoys the bipartisan support of Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). And as Jacob Heilbrunn pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, “GOP foreign policy eminences such as Henry Kissinger, George P. Shultz and Richard Burt endorse the treaty.” Provided that the Senate’s schedule cooperates, it’s likely that the treaty will be ratified this summer or fall.
What’s more, the alacrity with which the spy swap was carried out demonstrates the keenness of the Obama administration to continue apace the US-Russia “reset” policy. Rather than looking at the Vienna airport operation as an error in judgment caused by too-hasty (and naïve) decision-making, critics and commentators should instead see the spy swap as an illustration of the eagerness of the two governments to progress their relationships with each other. It doesn’t do anyone—Russian or American—any good to revert back to cold war thinking simply because it’s familiar and comfortable.
Historically, espionage scandals have been used by the intelligence community to undermine attempts to reduce US-Russian antagonism. (This is also the premise behind the sixth Star Trek movie, The Undiscovered Country, which was produced in 1991.) After Gary Powers’s U-2 spy plane was shot down in 1960, for example, the State Department accused then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev of “exploit[ing] the incident to sabotage the summit meeting between the Heads of Government of the United States, Soviet Union, France, and the United Kingdom,” which opened some two weeks after the incident.
Vladimir Kolesnikov, a deputy chairman of the security affairs committee in the lower house of Russian parliament, addressed the sabotage issue, saying, “Regrettably, there are people in America burdened by the legacy of the Cold War, the legacy of double standards.… And they react improperly to the warming of relations spearheaded by the presidents. It’s a blow to President Obama.” Even former FSB head Nikolai Kovalyov sees the scandal as a non-story as far as a cooling of US-Russian relations go, saying that, “Our two great powers must stand together.”
It is paramount that this episode be taken at face value. That is, intelligence hawks must not be given free rein to paint this as a homeland-security victory, to use the event as a fulcrum with which to leverage bigger budgets. If anything, when the extent and cost of the ten-year US investigation is weighed against the paltry intelligence that the Russian “sleepers” delivered to Moscow, it becomes clear that the nation needs to pursue a new way forward on intelligence. Considering that the spy ring may have only unearthed the dirty little secret that not much thinking actually goes on at American think tanks, the taxpayer-funded investigation appears more boondoggle than big score. There’s too much at stake to see it otherwise.