Land of KGB shrugs over US-British G-20 spying claims

Russians say few surprises in Guardian revelations; that tapping was aimed at Dmitri Medvedev not Vladimir Putin lessens impact in Moscow. 

By , Correspondent

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    Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (l.) attends a meeting with members of the government in Moscow, June 13. The political impact in Russia is likely to be limited by the fact that it was former president and current prime minister Medvedev, not Putin, who is named as the target of NSA spying.
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The Kremlin has so far maintained a discreet silence, but Russian security experts say there are few surprises for them in the Guardian's latest round of revelations, showing that the US National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart were actively trying to crack the encryption on then-President Dmitry Medvedev's phone calls home during a 2009 G-20 summit in London.

Several Russian experts said Monday that the Guardian exposé details the sort of activity that has been going on virtually forever, and represents the bread-and-butter of intelligence agencies on all sides.

"Everybody, everywhere has been doing this. And they are still are doing it," says Nikolai Kolpakidi, a Russian historian of the secret services and editor at the Algorithm Publishing House in Moscow.

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"If Medvedev didn't think he was being bugged, that's his problem. These scandals arise from time to time, and they blow over. We had plenty of them in Soviet times, and the only thing that surprises me is that we haven't had any lately with Russian secret services. I don't know if that means they're doing electronic surveillance less, or staking more on human agents..." 

The political impact in Russia is likely to be limited by the fact that it was former president and current prime minister Medvedev, not Putin, who is named as the target of NSA spying. Medvedev's political star has been falling rapidly since he relinquished the presidency to Putin last year.

At least one Russian official suggested Monday that there are, in fact, important lessons to be learned from the revelations.

"Our officials are not careful enough when they go abroad," Leonid Kalashnikov, deputy chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee told the Ekho Moskvi radio station.

"Many of them are illiterate about security issues, even though they are warned by the security services. Medvedev started this fashion of having an iPhone, and many officials are following his example," he added.

Experts say it would be explosive news, and a wake-up call for Russian intelligence, if the leaked NSA document indicated that US and British spies based at the huge surveillance complex of RAF Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire had managed to actually break Russian signal codes and listen to Mr. Medvedev's phone calls.

But the document quoted by the Guardian says only that they detected "a change in the way Russian leadership signals have been normally transmitted."

"Russian security operates on the principle of eternal and un-sleeping suspicion, and there is nothing new for them here," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of the online journal Agentura.ru, who is co-author of "The New Nobility," a book on the rise of Russia's national security state.

"Part of the reason they're so suspicious is because they do the same things. Everybody is always trying to crack the communications codes of others, and Russian security has long known of attempts to read the signals coming out of the Russian embassy in London... It would really be news of impact if the NSA had succeeded in doing that, but it doesn't look like they did."

Mr. Soldatov added that, "In Russia, the FSB [Federal Security Service] has special units devoted to protecting government communications, and there is a separate agency, the FSO [Federal Protection Service] which is dedicated entirely to that function."

If there are any repercussions, analysts say, they will be purely political. In a quirk of timing, Barack Obama, the very same US president who is embarrassed by the revelations, along with his British counterpart, will be sitting down today at a G-8 summit with current Russian leader Vladimir Putin, once again on British territory, in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.

No political leaders wish for a new scandal erupting right now says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, told the Ekho Moskvi radio station Monday, saying that, "This will heat up the atmosphere at the G-8, and increase tensions in relationships that were already far from idyllic."

The Guardian quotes a White House briefing about the G-20 sideline chat between Mr. Obama and Medvedev on April 1, 2009 in London as "a very successful first meeting focused on real issues." Photos from the event show the two men smiling broadly and clasping hands.

The leaked NSA report, discussing surveillance of the Russian delegation on the same day, provides some contrast: "This is an analysis of signal activity in support of President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to London," it says.

"The report details a change in the way Russian leadership signals have been normally transmitted. The signal activity was found to be emanating from the Russian embassy in London and the communications are believed to be in support of the Russian president."

"This looks a bit undignified for Medvedev, to be discussed in this context, but none of that should rub off on Putin. Medvedev is widely regarded in Russia as a weak character..." Soldatov adds. 

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