Foreign Policy / Gov. Officials / National Security

In Soviet Russia, the news makes you: competing portrayals of the spy scandal

As if US-Russian relations weren’t already complicated enough, a breaking spy scandal has resulted in the expulsion of Ryan Christopher Fogle, a junior diplomat at the US Embassy in Moscow, who allegedly attempted to recruit a Russian intelligence officer to spy for the CIA.

Reading the American and Russian press in the wake of the Fogle affair, one is left with two distinct impressions of the spy scandal. Both Western and Russian media coverage ridicule the sloppy, beyond-primitive tradecraft of the alleged CIA operative, but the similarities end there.  Most Russian media conclude that the wigs, cash, compass, and incriminating letter are indisputable proof that Fogle intended to recruit the Russian intelligence officer.  For the American media, such “proof” makes it hard to buy that Fogle was acting on behalf of the CIA and easier to believe that the incident was a setup.

Pointing to the instant availability of photos and video of the detention, some skeptical observers claim that this scandal plays into the hands of the Kremlin just a little too easily. Prominent Russian news agencies, including Kommersant, Rossiya 24, and, have expressed indignation at the Western press for doubting or otherwise laughing off the allegations that Fogle was working for the CIA.

Much like the scandal itself, tossing around accusations and conspiracy theories does nothing for US-Russian relations; however, one can’t help but notice how this incident coincides with key events that impact cooperation between the two countries:

  1. Secretary Kerry’s Moscow visit: Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov just weeks earlier. The leaders agreed to host talks to resolve the conflict in Syria.
  2. Heightened US interest in the North Caucasus: Since the Boston Marathon bombing, US intelligence agencies have been piecing together the Tsarnaev brothers’ path to radicalization, paying particular attention to Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s 2012 trip to Dagestan. The agent that Fogle allegedly tried to recruit was a North Caucasus specialist. This seems to fly in the face of any progress that FBI Director Robert Mueller’s recent visit to Moscow may have made.
  3. Ambassador McFaul’s Twitter Q&A: As news of the incident broke, US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul had just begun a live Q&A session on Twitter, during which he answered questions from followers in Russian and English.  This was likely an attempted PR boost for the ambassador, who has been unpopular with the Kremlin since meeting with opposition members before the 2012 election.

Given the timing and circumstances of the case, it’s easy to see why Western observers have expressed their doubts.  However, the Russian press is also justified in its indignation. When journalist Arkady Mamontov exposed the UK for using a fake rock to exchange information between diplomats and agents in a 2006 TV program, the British Foreign Office and media alike dismissed his claims as ludicrous.  He was vindicated in January 2012 when former Blair aide Jonathan Powell admitted that the rock was, in fact, real.

As NYU professor and Russia expert Mark Galeotti points out, Russia could have expelled Fogle without all the fuss; after all, it’s no revelation that the two countries spy on each other. (Russian officials are now claiming that they quietly showed another US operative the door earlier this year.) Although both sides predict that this will not affect long-term US-Russian relations, the decision to publicize the incident certainly doesn’t help in the short term. And while it may not damage international efforts like Syria, it will have a lasting effect on the opinions of ordinary Russians and Americans.