The case of Ryan Fogle, a 29-year-old third secretary in the political department of the U.S. embassy in Moscow who was arrested last week by Russian authorities, sparked a media furor worthy of the heights of the Cold War. The Russian government accused him of being a CIA officer, suggesting that he had been sent to the North Caucasus to meet with Russian security officials and to follow up on leads about the Tsarnaev brothers, the two ethnic Chechens implicated in the recent Boston bombing. Fogle left Moscow speedily. But in case anyone thought the episode was a one-off, news has also leaked of another: the expulsion on May 5 of Thomas Firestone, a prominent American lawyer in Moscow who used to work at the Department of Justice and is a caustic and well-informed observer of official corruption in Russia. The Russian security service, the FSB (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti), had apparently tried, and failed, to recruit him.

Although it would be a scandal if the United States were caught spying on Canada or the United Kingdom, no one should be surprised that the United States spies on Russia -- or vice versa. Russia is not a member of the Five Eyes, the intelligence-sharing alliance between the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, which is the closest thing the intelligence community has to a trusting family. Russia is not even a member of NATO -- and NATO allies, such as Greece and Turkey, spy on each other all the time.

For all the talk of resets, moreover, Russia and the United States remain adversaries. Russia is no longer the United States’ top priority, but it does rehearse military strikes on NATO targets, its media is full of anti-Western propaganda, and the country’s security services have a mixed record when it comes to dealing with violent Islamist extremists. Sometimes it represses them harshly; sometimes it uses them to serve Russian interests. The Russians captured Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda, in 1996, but let him go for reasons that remain unclear.

So it is only natural that CIA officers at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, working under diplomatic cover, seek out and cultivate potential sources. And in fact, the CIA’s recent track record of recruiting Russians is excellent. It flipped Alexander Poteyev, the number two in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) department dealing with the United States. Poteyev, in turn, betrayed the service’s crown jewels: its ten undercover sleeper agents in North America. That led to the arrest of Anna Chapman, a Russian national who had partied her way through London and New York, probably to build up a cover story for use later, and her colleagues. Poteyev, who was on the verge of being caught, was smuggled out of Russia in a textbook CIA exfiltration operation. Shock waves from that continue to provide other victories. German authorities arrested Andreas and Heidrun Anschlag, Russians who had lived in Germany for more than two decades under false identities and had apparently passed information on German, EU, and NATO security policies to the SVR.

On the other side of the world, countering Russian attempts to spy has been a long-term priority for the United States. In the late 1990s, the United States recruited Sergei Tretyakov, an SVR official at the Russian mission to the UN in New York. He gave detailed accounts of Russian attempts to recruit American and Canadian officials and to plant disinformation in the American media. For the moment, though, cooperation has been deemed more important, especially when it comes to terrorist cells in Russia. Since the Boston bombings, Russian authorities have been congenial, but their help has been temporary and partial. So if the opportunity arose to recruit an official in the Russian security services dealing with the North Caucasus, as Fogle is accused of doing, the CIA station in Moscow would have been in dereliction of its duty if it did not at least consider pursuing it.

What actually happened to the hapless Fogle, who was wearing a cheap-looking blond wig at the time of his arrest, can only be a matter of speculation. And the coverage on Russian television and in the Russian media is at best only part of the story. As a spook-watcher over the past two decades, I would guess that the episode was a “dangle” -- espionage parlance for a trap -- in which he attempted to contact a potential source but instead was caught by waiting FSB officers.

Some of the details that have struck others as ridiculous actually make sense. Sure, Fogle’s kit looked silly -- but most spy kits do. A wig or two can come in handy to throw off a tail. Fogle’s arrest evoked memories of a similar incident in which Michael Sellers, a CIA officer at the Moscow embassy in 1986, was caught and humiliated on Soviet television. He wore a false mustache. And a compass, although low-tech, is indeed helpful if you are trying to find a dead drop (in which your contact has hidden something in a secret location -- a loose brick in the north-east corner of a cellar, for example -- so that you do not have to meet in person).

Other details, though, are quite unusual: Fogle apparently carried a large sum in euros. This is odd, because money for agents is usually paid by bank transfer to some murky corner of the world financial system -- one reason that intelligence agencies fiercely resist calls for greater transparency in offshore accounts and the use of anonymous shell companies. But some agents prefer cash. Really good intelligence is worth that and the risk involved. Another detail of the Fogle case that sticks out is the fact that he was apparently trying to make contact with a potential source in Moscow. That is not the normal practice in CIA tradecraft. Making contact with a potential new agent is never taken lightly: it is a complicated and delicate business, and the opening gambits are usually subtle. At least the first meeting would usually happen outside Russia -- in Kiev, for example, or Cyprus, somewhere that Russians can visit easily, but where the FSB’s ability to follow them is more limited. Perhaps the CIA decided that the information available was so enticing that it was worth breaking the rules. Maybe Fogle broke some rules himself, in the hope of providing a coup that would impress his superiors (although that is unlikely: the problem in the CIA today is that people take too few risks, not too many). In all likelihood, Fogle was taking a calculated risk, a preliminary step to follow up a promising lead. Perhaps he was leaving money and a letter in a dead drop but walked straight into a trap. This time, the gamble did not pay off.

In truth, the only really extraordinary thing about the case is that the Russians made it a public scandal. The security officers could have said nothing and complained privately. They could have announced that an anonymous CIA officer (or U.S. embassy official) had been caught engaged in “activities incompatible with his status” and had been asked to leave Russia. That would have left it to the media to work out who the culprit was. This is how Western governments behave when they catch Russian embassy officials misbehaving.

So what is going on? One answer may be simple braggadocio. In recent years, Russian spycatchers have faced a number of stunning reverses, including the arrest of Chapman and her fellow “sleeper” agents; the arrest and conviction in 2009 of Herman Simm, the Estonian defense official who was once Russia’s top spy in NATO; and conviction in April of Raymond Poeteray, the Dutch diplomat who was found guilty of passing hundreds of sensitive documents to Russia. With the Fogle case, Russia finally had a success, and it wanted to crow about it -- not least to show its political masters that it is on the front foot. President Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer (albeit a junior and not very successful one, working mainly in the unglamorous world of counterintelligence), regards espionage as a totem of national pride. He is visibly gleeful when Russia catches Western spies, and visibly cross when Western intelligence services successfully penetrate Russia’s agencies.

And that is the rub: Russia still cares deeply about publicly humiliating the United States. Relations are not as tense as during the Cold War, but the espionage tussles are increasingly playing by the same old rules, including the outing of the unlucky spooks who get caught. Russia did not just televise the arrest of Fogle but also named another CIA officer who was asked to leave earlier in the year -- and in an astonishing breach of protocol, also named the CIA station chief in Moscow. This last breach of etiquette is particularly surprising. Many countries “declare” one or two embassy-based spooks to the host country, in order to facilitate negotiations and liaison on operations of common interest. But these names, by convention, are not published.

The common thread in all these episodes is anti-Westernism: a central thread in the story that the Russian regime tells its own people. As the Putin economic experiment gradually deflates and Russia heads toward recession, and as the president’s popularity crumbles, the need for a clear and convincing narrative becomes all the more pressing. The default choice is an anti-Western narrative, stoking paranoia that the West is out to get Russia. From this point of view, playing up the spy scandal makes perfect sense. Russians ascribe outsize powers to Western intelligence services -- a legacy of Soviet propaganda. Resurfacing those feelings is no difficult task. Even today, the idea that MI6 and the CIA are running nests of spies in the British and U.S. embassies resonates strongly. After Fogle’s arrest, talk shows and news programs were full of bitter coverage about American aggression and duplicity.

All of this is hard for the Obama administration to digest. The reset of relations with Russia in 2009 has gone from being a diplomatic gimmick to a sacred cow. To admit that Russia is a xenophobic kleptocracy uninterested in serious dialogue with Western countries would be a humiliating reverse. The Boston bombing has highlighted the need for cooperation, just as the spy scandal has highlighted the Kremlin’s unwillingness to engage in it. A clearheaded approach would also raise the question of whether the administration is right to be so cautious about criticizing human rights abuses in Russia. It would put an uncomfortably bright spotlight on the way in which the White House lobbied desperately to water down the Magnitsky Act, a piece of legislation that imposes visa sanctions and asset freezes on those responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing lawyer who uncovered $230 million in fraud against Russian taxpayers. And the question of why the United States is not doing more to defend Russia’s neighbors, such as Poland and the Baltic states, would surely come up.

For an administration beset with other worries, spending more time and effort on understanding Russia is an unattractive option. Even less likely is that the administration would start actively working to counter the mischief that the dysfunctional regime in Moscow does abroad and the damage that it inflicts at home. For now though, America is a big deal for Russia whereas Russia is a nuisance for America. The real lesson of the whole affair is thus likely one learnd by the Kremlin -- any outrage from Moscow will be matched by shrugs in Washington.

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  • EDWARD LUCAS is International Editor of The Economist and author, most recently, of Deception: The Untold Story of East-West Espionage Today.
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