As the spies return to Russia, Vladimir Putin is laughing through his tears
www.telegraph.co.uk, 9th July 2010 09:03
To be outed as a Russian spy in the world’s most powerful country is embarrassing. To then have it revealed that you stole precisely no secrets despite years of covert activity is humiliating. When the ten self-confessed Russian spies return to the motherland today it will not be to a heroes’ welcome. On the contrary, Russia’s spymasters, including Vladimir Putin, the prime minister and a former KGB spy himself, will be crying into their vodka.
Make no mistake – the spies’ capture and return represents a spectacular failure for the Kremlin and for Russia’s feared and once respected intelligence services. In the early stages of the furore, Kremlin spin doctors worked hard behind the scenes to try to laugh it off, play it down, and muddy the waters. But now that seven of the ten have sensationally revealed their undercover Russian identities the whole thing does not seem quite so funny.
It is not surprising then that statements from official Moscow reflect acute discomfort. A terse statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry explained that the Cold War-style exchange was agreed to on “humanitarian grounds and according to the principles of a constructive partnership.” In other words, it sought to portray Moscow as being magnanimous.
The truth is rather different. Washington may have cooked up this deal but the Russians leapt at it with the enthusiasm of a drowning man in need of a life raft. It allowed the Russians to save a smidgen of face, spared everyone the irritation of an embarrassing trial, and allowed the Russians to say that they never abandoned their own.
It also, ironically, allowed the Russians to feel important again. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, they pined, in vain, to be taken seriously by their old Cold War foe. At least here, albeit for all the wrong reasons, America is giving them a little face-time. Indeed, the foreign ministry statement gushed more about the alleged strength of improved US-Russia relations than anything else. I don’t expect many more foreign ministry statements on this subject. It is a fair bet that the Russians will now want this whole debacle to disappear into the mists of time as quickly as possible to spare their blushes. That, at least, would certainly be the smart thing to do.
State-controlled TV has so far given the scandal very little coverage for that very reason but newspapers, which enjoy a little more freedom, have been more loquacious. The Moskovsky Komsomolets daily spluttered on Friday about the Russian spies’ “clinical idiocy.” And even Mikhail Leontyev, a TV commentator famous for his fierce anti-American tirades, admitted the affair was toe-curlingly embarrassing. “It is a case of laughter through tears,” he said. “The story shows our illegal spy network in a very strange light. It is completely impossible to understand what value the spies’ infiltration into American society as illegals had. It looks more like Washington uncovered a spy network working for Guadeloupe or Guatemala.”