WASHINGTON – This past month we’ve had a reminder of the Cold War espionage legacy that still overhangs the U.S.-Russian relationship like a murky gray cloak – but also some dramatic new evidence of the strategic “reset” in Russian-American relations. At a time when the nations talk of partnership even as their spies continue scavenging for secrets, which path is real?
Let’s look first at the spy swap that followed the arrest of a dozen Russian “illegals” here. There wasn’t much fanfare paid to the four Russians who slinked out of Moscow in this trade: All eyes, I guess, were on the comely Russian espionnette, Anna Chapman. But I’m told that two of these Russians were among the most important “moles” the CIA ever placed inside the Russian intelligence service.
U.S. officials said the two, Alexander Zaporozhsky and Gennady Vasilenko, provided the crucial first identification of Russia’s superspies inside the heart of U.S. intelligence – the CIA’s Aldrich Ames and the FBI’s Robert Hanssen. Public accounts of how Ames and Hanssen were caught, which appeared in their indictments and are featured on the FBI’s website, were partly cover stories.
The official versions emphasize aggressive FBI legwork in interrogating Hanssen and monitoring his dead drops, and what the FBI history describes as the bureau’s “intensive physical and electronic surveillance of Ames during a 10-month investigation.” This gumshoe work was certainly necessary in building legal cases against Ames and Hanssen that could be taken to court.
But the real breakthroughs came from dangerous undercover operations inside Moscow Center by Zaporozhsky and Vasilenko. I am told by several sources that they managed to get access to the most sensitive files on Ames and Hanssen, perhaps the KGB’s most closely guarded secrets. I’m told, for example, that one of the CIA’s agents was actually able to identify Hanssen’s fingerprints on correspondence he had sent to his KGB handlers. That’s how the CIA nailed him.
I first heard a hint of this operation several years ago, but the information was strictly off the record and not for publication. I asked U.S. officials this week whether the embargo could be lifted, now that the CIA’s moles were safely out of Moscow and in America. They said yes.
The Russians already know the details: They arrested Zaporozhsky, a former KGB colonel, in 2001 after luring him back to Moscow from the United States, where he had retired. Vasilenko, a former KGB major, was arrested briefly in 1988 and then again in 2005, when he was sentenced to prison.
That’s the old spy vs. spy framework for the U.S.-Russian relationship, the gritty narrative that launched a thousand spy novels.
The new face (and you have to decide if it’s sincere) came in a speech Monday in Moscow by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to a conference of Russian ambassadors. Taken at face value, it’s a comprehensive Kremlin endorsement of the reset that the Obama administration has been trying to achieve with Moscow.
Medvedev specifically named the United States as an example of “special modernization alliances with our main international partners.” He talked about cooperation on political and financial reform, technology, organized crime and counterterrorism. He said after visiting high-tech sites in America that he saw “a very positive agenda” and “future potential for our collaboration.”
Perhaps most important, Medvedev slammed Iran in unusually frank language: “It is obvious that Iran is coming close to the possession of potential that could in principle be used to create nuclear weapons.” He said pointedly: “The Iranian side itself is behaving in far from the best way.”
The Obama administration rightly stresses that Medvedev’s language of accommodation isn’t an accident, but the product of careful, consistent diplomacy. Obama has met the Russian president eight times and spoken by telephone nine times. His consistent message has been that he wants a new partnership. To get it, he has been willing to give up a missile defense system Russia regards as a threat.
The choice for Russia and America now is how to use this fledgling partnership. If Obama is bold, he will help Russia became a truly modern nation – where journalists are no longer threatened for challenging powerful interests, where energy is no longer used as an economic weapon, and where bullying neighbors is a thing of the past.
This kind of genuine alliance would be horrible for spy novelists – who would read a buddy novel about cooperative Russian and American agents? But it would be good for both countries and the world.
David Ignatius writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Contact him at email@example.com or 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20071.
David Ignatius / The Washington Post