Last week, the Washington Post‘s Josh Rogin had two important scoops illuminating the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Russia. The first story detailed the increasing levels of abuse hurled at American diplomats stationed in Moscow since Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Russian agents are reportedly shadowing U.S. diplomats with escalating menace. Two episodes in particular veer into the realm of stalking and psychopathy: one diplomat’s dog was killed at his home, while another came back from work to find feces on his carpet.
Two days later, Rogin followed up with the revelation that Russian security services had assaulted an American diplomat right outside the Embassy. The man’s shoulder was reportedly broken in the scuffle, and he just barely managed to escape his assailant. Details:
The motive for the attack remains unclear. One U.S. official told me that the diplomat was seeking refuge in the embassy complex to avoid being detained by the Russian intelligence services. A different U.S. official told me the diplomat may have been working as a spy in Russia under what’s known as “diplomatic cover,” which means he was pretending to be a State Department employee.
Spokesmen for the both the State Department and the CIA declined to comment on the incident or whether or not the diplomat was in fact an undercover U.S. spy.
On June 30, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova (she, who memorably danced a late-night jig at this year’s ASEAN summit) said that the American in question had exited a cab in front of the embassy with a mask pulled over his face, and had punched one of the guards before he was wrestled to the ground. Then, earlier this week, Zakharova followed up her initial statements by accusing the U.S. government of waging information warfare by trying to make hay over what she claimed was a “banal incident in the life of a CIA agent.”
People around town who had seen a clip of the incident (captured by a security camera) have been disputing this Russian version of events, and indeed, as Rogin noted, Congress is in the process of investigating the incident. Those of us following the story, however, were not expecting to see the footage made public anytime soon. How wrong we were:
Russia’s NTV managed to get a hold of the video and ran a tightly edited 15 second excerpt from it today. The voiceover still maintains that the fault clearly lies with the American for not identifying himself properly, even though the security guard tackles him to the ground almost as soon as he is out of the taxi. Trifling inconsistencies like these rarely bother propagandists, of course. In any case, it still looks good for domestic consumption: a Russian cop is shown to be beating up an American spy.
The broader messaging is also quite clear: Russia takes no guff from anyone—even from the world’s sole remaining superpower. As John Schindler pointed out in a recent op-ed, “physically attacking the other side wasn’t normal even in the depths of the Cold War.” People caught as “illegals” might have been tortured and even executed, but spies with official cover would in general only be expelled and persona non grata‘d, often with minimal fanfare. And yet here, after replaying the assault for a third time, the segment cuts to a photo of the American in question, who is publicly identified by name. Much as with the case of Ryan Fogle in 2013, there’s a lurid, tabloid air about the whole presentation—an attempt at ritual shaming. The FSB didn’t quite get their captured spy to do a perp walk like last time, but the effect is similar. This is the “bitch-slap theory of politics” (a concept identified and named by Josh Marshall in the run-up to the 2004 U.S. elections), gone global.
President Obama seems determined to not be baited by this kind of stuff, even if it is causing lasting frustration and outrage among the men and women serving in the diplomatic and intelligence corps. Indeed, one could easily imagine the President making the case that there is little to be gained from descending to the Russians’ level in such matters.
That said, the White House not only appears to not be upset; it seems to be signaling that it is optimistic about cooperating with Russia during the President’s final months in office. The above assault took place on June 6, and yet on June 9, National Security Advisor Susan Rice sounded sanguine about the possibility of a breakthrough with the Russians over Ukraine: “We are hopeful if the Russians want to resolve this—and we have some reason to believe they might—we have the time and the wherewithal and the tools to do so,” she said. Furthermore, last week, the White House reportedly submitted a proposed agreement to the Kremlin on intelligence-sharing in Syria—an unexpected gesture of goodwill made with no visible strings attached.
The President himself has never shown any evidence of having warm feelings for Putin, but Secretary of State John Kerry is rumored to have a positive relationship with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Additionally, Kerry’s deputy for Europe and Eurasia Victoria Nuland, who is known as a Russia hawk, has an open channel with the Kremlin’s former “gray cardinal” Vladislav Surkov over Ukraine, a relationship that has also been described as “productive.”
That is to say, it’s impossible to know from the outside the extent to which there is genuine cause for optimism. Perhaps compartmentalizing an incident over spies, however egregiously beyond the bounds of accepted behavior, is smart diplomacy. Perhaps the Kremlin, pinched by sanctions and persistently weak oil prices, really is ready for some kind of grand bargain, and perhaps it’s right to let them puff their chests for a domestic audience if it means they will make meaningful concessions elsewhere.
Color us skeptical. While the Putin regime is on balance rational, it is also not prone to thinking in positive-sum terms. It regularly engages in risky and provocative behavior, but is at the same time aware of its own precarious hold on power, knowing that any serious conflict with the West could easily spell its demise. Putin pushes and pushes, until he meets resistance. When Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet last November, the Kremlin pointedly did not escalate militarily. When its maximalist Novorossiya project in Ukraine was shown to be unachievable, the Kremlin settled for a barely frozen conflict in the Donbas and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
Given what we know of today’s Russia, in other words, we don’t share the President’s seeming inclination to compartmentalize this latest ugly episode in pursuit of some kind of meaningful, durable deal. But we would love to be proven wrong.