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Opinion

Russian espionage: A blow to Obama’s ‘reset’ with Russia

The discovery of the Russian spy network in the US indicates that the current Russian leadership is living in the past. To Moscow, the US is still an intelligence target, not a partner.

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This included dead drops, coded communications, burying information in “microdots” on websites, known as steganography; 27-character Web passwords; and some tweaked laptops, courtesy of Moscow Center’s tech mavens. Unfortunately for the agents, their laptop crashed repeatedly.

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The Russian agents were easily tracked by FBI counterintelligence, although their handlers failed to spot it. This has led some old-timers from the intelligence community to speculate that the network is a decoy to mask a much more sophisticated espionage operation in the US

Such deception is plausible. And if there is one cell, there are bound to be more. Oleg Gordievsky, a famous cold-war defector and former chief of the London KGB station, said recently that Russia may have as many as 50 deep-cover couples spying inside the US.

Moreover, this raises a sensitive question: What are other Russian intelligence agencies such as GRU (military intelligence) doing in the US, and what are the successes of the Russian (and Chinese) online spying, which is executed by a different agency altogether?

The operation was more than a decade-long effort to exploit the weaknesses of an open society. However, it looks as if the Russians used a lot of 20th century tradecraft for 21st century America. Unlike the 1930-1950s, today Moscow provides no ideological attraction. Russia’s “brand” is shot, while bickering between agents and their control over expenses, including mortgages in the New Jersey suburbs, suggests that the center’s pockets were not as deep as Russia’s newfound oil wealth may suggest.

It is also unclear why Moscow tolerated a network that seemed to produce so little. A prominent Moscow policy expert told me that “the bosses” value tidbits picked up by agents much more than what could be gleaned by sophisticated civilian analysts reading journals, talking to colleagues, or going to conferences. This reflects an ingrained cult of intelligence, which outlived its Soviet roots.

“Reset” or not, the discovery of the spy network in America indicates that the current Russian leadership is still living in the past, and continues to view America with fear and suspicion. Moscow still sees the US as an intelligence target, not a “partner,” as the Obama administration posits. The White House should recognize that much.

And it will take more than cheeseburgers, fries, and ketchup to change that.

Ariel Cohen, PhD, is a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy policy at The Heritage Foundation. The author thanks Owen Graham, research assistant at the Heritage’s Allison Center, for his help.

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