Within a day of the Russian television channel NTV running footage of the assault on an American citizen by Russian security services just outside the doors of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, the U.S. State Department announced that it had expelled two Russian diplomats and had declared them persona non grata, just a little less than two weeks after the original incident. The two Russian diplomats, who remain unnamed, were told to leave on Friday, June 17, while the beating of the U.S. diplomat occurred on June 6.
Then, this morning, Russia publicly announced that it had expelled two U.S. diplomats in response to the U.S. statement yesterday. According to the Guardian, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov accused the U.S. of failing to keep its word after asking Moscow not to publicize the earlier incidents.
Yesterday, I tried to explain what may have gone on in Russia to take the spy war physical—a major escalation even from the old Cold War rules. Now, a few observations from the new information coming to light:
The Obama Administration really wanted to keep this incident quiet. Whether due to wishful thinking or for reasons knowable only to those on the inside, the White House seems to think it can make progress with Russia on both the Ukraine and Syria portfolios. The harassment of State Department personnel in Moscow by security personnel was not exactly a new phenomenon, even though it had increased in intensity since Russia annexed Crimea, fought a covert war in Donbas, and had sanctions imposed on it. The White House probably saw this latest assault, egregious though it was, as fitting into a well-established pattern (one at odds with whatever hopeful signs it thought it was getting directly from the Kremlin).
The Administration knew the video of the beating looked bad and could inflame U.S. domestic opinion if it leaked. But to its credit, it did not completely turn the other cheek either. Rather, it stuck to the informal, accepted procedure of quietly PNGing two Russian spies with diplomatic cover and gave zero notice to the press. Whatever the original reason for the assault, the thinking must have gone, it’s important that it not get in the way of improving relations with the Kremlin.
For a while, the Russians were content to keep this quiet, too. From June 17 until June 30, there was not a peep about any of this from either official sources or Russian media. Ryabkov’s statement seems to indicate that they did this as some kind of favor to the Obama Administration, but that does not fully ring true.
There is a tendency to over-personalize countries’ policies when writing about international affairs. In an increasingly authoritarian country like Russia, of course, it is smart to first ask oneself what the capo di tutti capi is thinking. But it’s also important to remember that, even as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cult of personality has grown, the Russian state itself remains a set of massive, overlapping bureaucracies. These bureaucracies compete with each other for power and try to behave in ways that they think would ultimately be pleasing to the Great Leader. Putin himself uses the ambiguity created by the unwieldiness of the bureaucracies; he allows the various agencies below him to jostle for influence, creating a kind of unpredictable system of checks and balances.
It’s unlikely that Putin himself would have been asked to directly approve the mauling of an American case officer. This incident may have been the result of “local initiative” by some overzealous FSB lieutenant. To be sure, the Kremlin has set a tone of unrelenting anti-Americanism in Russia, and the FSB apparatchik probably thought he was doing his patriotic duty.
Furthermore, one might even imagine that Putin, if asked, would hesitate to take it this far. He is, after all, an old spook who got his start in the KGB and has been known to wax sentimental about the “rules of the game” of the world’s second-oldest profession. One of the rules is “don’t rough up those with diplomatic cover.”
In any case, while we may never know what the exact decision-making behind this episode was, the fact remains that the Kremlin did not speak up for two weeks after its own diplomats were shown the door by Washington in retaliation. It must have felt that it was to its advantage to sit quietly.
A conspiracy-minded, paranoid Kremlin has trouble understanding how the United States works. What prompted the Russian Foreign Ministry to start complaining on June 30? The only logical proximate cause for all this outrage was the publication of Josh Rogin’s article on June 28, which blew the lid off of a story that both sides up until then had tried to keep under wraps. Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova first tried to explain the incident away on the 30th as merely a police officer trying to do his duty by preventing a masked man from entering the U.S. Embassy. Then earlier this week, she upped her rhetoric, accusing the CIA of conducting information warfare against the Russian Federation by blowing a “banal incident” out of proportion.
Instead of seeing Rogin’s dispatch as a normal part of how American democracy works—various factions in government leaking strategically to reporters to achieve (or thwart) various policy objectives—the Kremlin appears to have interpreted the story as a planned provocation by the CIA.
Part of this is due to the common cognitive trap of mirror-imaging. Investigative journalism does go on in Russia, but it is relegated to smaller independent publications, which themselves are increasingly being squeezed by the authorities. Many of the corruption exposés in Russian independent media are the product of a business or bureaucratic competitor leaking kompromat in order to gain advantage.
The main news outlets, however, are tightly controlled, and the government is able to keep a story this big under wraps. Officials in Putin’s Russia are less likely to believe that a well-connected national security reporter at the biggest newspaper in Washington landed a scoop than they are to suspect that Langley coordinated the leak. A bombshell story like this, in a major paper, could only have come from the very top. After all, that’s how it would have been done in Moscow.
But why continue to escalate, from angry protests by officials to the airing of the inflammatory footage that was bound to complicate relations between Russia and the U.S.? The answer is that the Kremlin does not trust the United States very much at all. Mark Galeotti recently summarized the worldview of the security services as a mix of three complementary aspects (shared by most at the commanding heights of the Kremlin as well):
The first is that “if the West loses, we gain.” This zero-sum perspective, reminiscent of the Cold War, comes from a group of Foreign Intelligence Service officers, as recounted second hand by a Russian academic.
The second is that “Russia is at risk”, as expressed by Source B, an FSB officer, in 2014 (before Crimea). When pressed, he pointed to the Maidan uprising, which he genuinely believes was a CIA operation. This intelligent, well-travelled individual asserted that there was a concerted Western drive to force regime change on Russia through political subversion and to undermine Russia’s distinctive historical, religious, and social identity in order to weaken resistance to a global US-led hegemony.
The third is “better action than inaction”, which Source F recounted hearing in a meeting with Foreign Intelligence Service officers. Source A, the former insider, agreed that although the agencies could be as bureaucratic as any Russian institution, there was a clear bias towards risk-taking, especially given the competitive environment in which they operate.
In other words: “The West is out to get us, so we might as well get them first.” This remains the Russian leadership’s paradigm. The release of the video suggests that the confidence-building measures the White House thought it was proffering in the past month have barely moved the needle.
The White House is still in reactive mode. The reason that the U.S. State Department finally announced that it had expelled Russian diplomats almost a month ago is that it recognized that the video of the incident was too inflammatory domestically to go publicly unanswered. By not revealing the identities of the expelled diplomats (which would have made our quids match up more evenly to the Russian quos), the Obama Administration yesterday appeared to hope that this would be the end of the episode, after which confidence-building between the two sides could proceed. We will see how that pans out. Maybe today’s response from the Russians is as far as this goes.
In any case, some in the White House are probably cursing Josh Rogin’s reporting. If only his story hadn’t broken, these people tell themselves, none of this would have happened. The Russians had accepted our token retribution for the beating of our diplomat and had agreed to keep it all under wraps. The assault itself was regrettable; though it was the product of the toxic atmosphere encouraged by the Kremlin itself, it was probably not ordered from on high. Putin would never apologize for something like this, but back channel negotiations were showing signs of life. Now all that is in peril.
If that is the Administration’s read, it is mistaken. As I said yesterday, unlike the White House, I am not at all sanguine about any positive breakthroughs emerging in the near term—not with the Putin regime firmly in place, anyway. All this latest episode underlines is just how wide the gulf between Washington and Moscow is, and how unlikely it is to narrow with a bunch of paranoid siloviki running the show. Rogin’s story does appear to have triggered a chain of events that likely would not have played out exactly this way had it not been published. But in truth, all it did was reveal the actual nature of the Moscow-Washington relationship. Even the most banal agreements become difficult to achieve if the two parties can’t agree on the shape of reality itself.