Russian media has had next to no reaction to reports this week by Canadian news outlets that four Russian diplomats, all military attachés, were expelled from Canada as spies.
Two days after Canadian media broke the news about the expelled Russian diplomats, not a single Russian newspaper or news agency mentioned the episode, other than to report the muted official response that the diplomats were, in any case, scheduled to return home.
Separately, emerging details of an unrelated British espionage drama involving the use of a fake rock on a Moscow street has partly overshadowed the news from Canada.
On Friday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the Canadian episode as hardly worth paying attention to, saying the diplomats had left Canada in 2011 “after their trips came to an end” and the news faded.
“We had no noise in Russia around the Canadian diplomatic scandal, as there is more interesting news right now – like elections, opposition protests or even a different espionage story, about the British spy rock,” Igor Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, said in an interview.
In a BBC documentary shown on Thursday night, Jonathan Powell, once chief of staff to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, seemed to confirm the use of a fake rock containing a transmitter, and placed beside a street in Moscow to surreptitiously download files from a smart phone or personal digital assistant.
He said that “the spy rock was embarrassing,” an important confirmation for Russian special services, who had claimed five years ago that they discovered an espionage ring in Moscow centred around a fake rock – a claim that appeared so unlikely that few even in Russia had believed the story.
In comparison, the expulsion of Russian diplomats in the context of the foreign ministry playing down the events was a relative mundane development – a diplomatic dog-bites-spy story for the Russian capital.
And this is a country that’s fascinated with spies. Books like the recent A Spy by Pavel Astakhov or A Spy Novel by Boris Akunin immediately become bestsellers. Some stories never fade; even after 40 years, Russians still love to watch Seventeen Moments of Spring, a TV miniseries about a Soviet spy in Germany, replayed endlessly here. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former spy, has called it his favourite series.
There is a lot of tolerance, even, for failed spies. Even after two years, Russian publications frequently circle back on the story about the failed spy and red-headed beauty, Anna Chapman, who is now testing the waters to become a politician. Just last November, the Russian media lit up with reports that she had been accused of plagiarism after publishing an article in Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper; bloggers claimed it was a copied and pasted text by one of the Kremlin’s political analysts.
Alexei Makarkin, an independent political scientist, said the lack of interest in the Canadian story stemmed from the fact that the diplomats sounded low ranked, and few humanizing details were released.
“Unlike the story of blown operation in the United States, the Canadian episode sounds too small and has no story,” Mr. Makarkin said.
“Russians like fascinating, thrilling stories. Some cried over the fate of the foreign intelligence agency general, Mikhail Vasenkov, a hero of Soviet Union and then Russia, who was married to a Peruvian woman and worked for decades outside his homeland. Others could not stop talking of the diva and spy Anna Chapman, and her father, a high ranking KGB officer. (In the Canadian story) the diplomats were some lieutenants – too small to remember,” Mr. Makarkin said.
Unlike the ring of eleven so-called “illegals” in the United States, where Russian spies had assumed the identities of suburban American professionals, the Canadian episode has not made it onto the radar of the Russian capital’s attention. The Canadian story had no intrigue, no Russian intelligence colonel who became a traitor by informing the FBI about the ring of spies. The expulsions seemed to suggest a routine ejection of professional agents working under diplomatic cover, if not a mere diplomatic protest.
Is there any negative judgment about a person spying for the motherland? Forget about it. “There is a total consensus in Russia that our diplomats can spy wherever and whenever they want as long as that serves the interest of Russia,” Mr. Makarkin said.
Stanislav Belkovsky, a political scientist with links to the Kremlin and director of the National Strategy Institute, argued that the explanation for the lack of reaction might point not only to the modest news value – but to the lack of any reasonable grounds for the Russian government to complain about the unravelling of its spy ring abroad. “They are trying to forget this because Russia has no answer.”