I spy, you spy: Russian officials downplay Fogle incident

Russian officials are avoiding inflammatory language as they talk about the case of Ryan Fogle, a US diplomat suspected of being a CIA agent.

Courtesy of FSB Public Relations Center/AP
A man claimed by Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) to be Ryan Fogle, a third secretary at the US Embassy in Moscow, is in the FSB offices in Moscow, early Tuesday.

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Both Washington and the Kremlin played down the diplomatic impact of Russia's detention of a US diplomat it suspects of being a CIA agent, suggesting that the incident will prove a minor episode in US-Russian relations.

Reuters reports that Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that the Ryan Fogle incident did not contribute to "strengthening mutual trust between Russia and the US," but Reuters notes that Mr. Peskov avoided inflammatory language. And BBC News writes that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not address the incident during a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Sweden.

"I decided that talking about it would be superfluous, since it is already made public and everyone already understands everything," [Mr. Lavrov] said in comments published on the foreign ministry's website.

Similarly, Nikolai Kovalyov, a former Russian security chief and current parliamentarian for Putin's United Russia party, told independent Russian news agency Interfax that he did not believe Fogle's detention will affect US-Russian relations. "The Americans do nothing other secret services, including ours, would not do," he said.

Reuters notes that US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell also played down the impact of the Fogle arrest on US-Russian relations, saying "I'm not sure I would read too much into one incident one way or another."

Fogle was reportedly detained on Monday by Russian security on suspicion that he is a CIA agent trying to turn Russian agents. The FSB, Russia's CIA counterpart, claims that it caught Fogle red-handed, with "special technical devices, written instructions for the Russian citizen being recruited, a large sum of cash and means of changing his appearance." Fogle's image dominated the Russian media on Tuesday, which showed him in detention with a collection of wigs, sunglasses, money, and other paraphernalia he is alleged to have been carrying.

Fogle's alleged spy kit has struck many experts as too obviously cloak-and-dagger to be legitimate, however.

Former FBI counterintelligence officer Eric O'Neill told CNN that he "very much doubt[s] that a highly trained CIA operative is going to be walking the streets of Moscow wearing a really bad blonde wig. It's poor tradecraft, and looks like a setup to me," suggesting that the material was planted on Fogle for dramatic effect.

Mark Galeotti, a security and espionage expert at New York University told the Daily Telegraph that it's possible that Fogle is indeed a low-level CIA agent, but that the kit was added to "ice the cake."

"I'm sure the way Russia is handling this was a political decision made at or near the top," he said in a telephone interview. "Part of this is a message to the United States saying, 'don't take us for granted'. But mostly, this is a message for the internal constituency.

"It feeds into a Russian narrative that says, 'yes, of course, we will deal with the West because it's pragmatic to do so, but you have to understand the extent to which we are constantly under siege in a hidden campaign against us by the West, and that's why we need a strong hand in the Kremlin."

Alexander Golts, a security analyst with the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal, told The Christian Science Monitor that "There are some peculiar aspects of this story as well, particularly the letter – which has been reproduced in the Russian press – promising this Russian $1 million per year for his cooperation. I really have trouble picturing what kind of information is worth that much money."

But Mr. Golts notes that spycraft is often stranger than fiction, citing Kremlin accusations in 2006 that Britain's MI6 was making use of a high-tech device disguised as a rock to spy on Russia – accusations that later proved to be true.

"Remember how we all laughed at the spy-rock story? But it turned out to be real enough, so we must admit that such things do happen," he says.

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