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Russia-US relations: spy versus spy

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COMMENTS

12 November 2010 15:57

Matthew Hill is a Lowy intern with the Global Issues Program. Sheryn Lee is a Master's student in the Graduate Studies in Strategy and Defence program, ANU

The revelation earlier this year that US authorities had uncovered a Russian deep–cover spy ring provided insight into the continued shadowy contest between the old Cold War rivals. Now, the story has a fresh twist. A Russian newspaper has  announced  that a double-agent, Colonel Shcherbakov, was responsible for exposing Moscow’s agents to the American authorities, before defecting to the United States. 

It's safe to say it hasn’t been a great week for Russia’s external spy agency, the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR. Exposure of Shcherbakov’s involvement in US counter-espionage efforts come in the wake of Georgia’s announcement that it too has uncovered a Russian spy ring. With the security services on the back foot, Moscow is trying to compensate for this embarrassment. In an anonymous statement referring to Shcherbakov, a Kremlin official harked back to the golden age of Soviet espionage:

"We know who he is and where he is…Do not doubt that a Mercader has already been sent to get him.” That was a reference to Ramón Mercader, the Spanish Communist who was sent by Stalin to assassinate Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940.

Intriguingly, some observers perceive a deliberate political hand behind the revelations: 

Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a former KGB officer who now lives in Boston, said in an interview that the story may signal the government's desire to address intelligence issues, to prepare the public for the planned reunification of the Foreign Intelligence Service with the Federal Security Service.

Russia’s domestic and foreign intelligence organisations were split up under former President Boris Yeltsin, on the grounds that they posed a threat to civilian control of government. However, in an era where there is the perception that political power has been captured by Putin and the so-called silvoski security establishment, there is speculation that these claims could represent the next step in the centralisation of power and the recreation of authoritarian institutions. 

While Washington has been careful to avoid publicising the defection, these latest admissions have the potential to undercut the fragile ‘reset’ in US-Russia relations. Despite the successful negotiation of the New START agreement to reduce nuclear arsenals, Moscow is increasingly dubious that the US Senate will ratify the treaty. Furthermore, the spy scandals of earlier this year are reported to have left a lingering negative impact on ongoing anti-ballistic missile discussions between Moscow and Washington. The Shcherbakov disclosure comes on the eve of President Medvedev’s meeting with President Obama at the APEC summit in Yokohama. Expect both parties to be walking on egg-shells.

Photo by Flickr user Fire Monkey Fish, used under a Creative Commons license.

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