From Cold War to Cold Shoulder

Why Putin Made the Spy Game Personal

Obama Putin Russia Snowden Gay Rights Summit Moscow Eisenhower Kruschev
Eisenhower and Kruschev in 1959, Obama and Putin in 2013 (US Navy, Reuters)

Serious countries do not start wars, hot or cold, because of defections. Fifty years ago this summer, Moscow announced that it had granted political asylum and citizenship to the greatest Western defector of the Cold War, H.A.R. “Kim” Philby. Philby’s flight to the Soviet Union was an embarrassment to the West on several levels. Not only had he been chief of the anti-Soviet counterespionage division of MI6 (the British foreign intelligence service) but, when suspicions about Philby first emerged in the mid-1950s, the Conservative government of the day publicly stood by him. To make matters worse, the cabinet minister chosen to defend Philby in the House of Commons, Harold Macmillan, had in the intervening years become prime minister.

“[I]t is not too bad but may become a nuisance,” Prime Minister Macmillan wrote phlegmatically in his diary about the Philby matter in 1963. But Macmillan didn’t break off contact with Moscow over the defection. He and U.S. President John F. Kennedy were so invested in achieving a nuclear test ban agreement with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that Macmillan refused to let the spy game influence his decisions. And the Soviets responded in kind. The Kremlin consciously chose to manage Philby’s defection to minimize any damage to superpower negotiations. Although the British defector had disappeared in January 1963, the Soviets waited to announce his whereabouts and that he had been granted asylum until after reaching agreement on the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the United States and the United Kingdom in July 1963. Khrushchev, who had just weathered a Cuban missile crisis of his own making, wanted arms control and a safer world.

Last week, following Moscow’s decision to grant temporary political asylum to Edward Snowden, U.S. President Barack Obama decided to postpone -- effectively to cancel -- a tête-à-tête with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At his press conference on Friday, Obama also suggested it was time for a “pause” to reevaluate U.S.-Russian relations. The Russians allege that Obama cancelled the summit purely because of concerns related to the former National Security Agency contractor and leaker. The Obama administration denies that Snowden was the sole cause but does not contest that it formed part of the decision.

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