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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Alvaro Vargas Llosa

A spy ring's mediocrity exposes Russia's decadence Add to ...

Some of the commentary on the Russian agents arrested last month by the FBI and deported in a spy swap last week has centred on the fact that Moscow was spying on the United States while Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev celebrated their nuclear and diplomatic partnership at Ray's Hell Burger, or on the evolving focus of Russia's intelligence services. But all of this misses the real point: how much the mediocrity of the spy ring reveals about the decadence of present-day Russia.

It's not surprising that Russia spies on the U.S. while co-operation occurs in many areas - the nuclear deal, the sanctions against Iran, the suspension of the anti-missile shield in Central Europe. All states spy, and friends spy on each other, too - even Israeli agents have been caught in the United States.

Equally unsurprising is that Moscow should pursue non-military and non-political targets. Industrial espionage by Russia is as old as Lenin. Commercial and technological intelligence may have become a top priority since the Berlin Wall fell, but it was also a key part of the information-gathering apparatus of the Communists. One of the missions of Markus Wolf's Stasi, East Germany's notorious intelligence service, was to steal industrial secrets from West Germany, as he explains in his memoirs.

The problem with the latest bunch of moles was not that they placed pictures on Facebook (Anna Chapman), were futurist technology geeks ("Donald Heathfield"), were travel agents (Mikhail Semenko), were barbecue-grilling suburbanites ("Richard" and "Cynthia Murphy") or penned leftist columns in New York's El Diario La Prensa (Vicky Pelaez). Actually, these seem like pretty good covers. Yet, by all accounts, none of the spies really did much besides what it looked like they were doing. Apparently, they milked Russia's budget for nothing, a delicious irony if one thinks of Russia's pervasive venality: Transparency International places the country on a par with Zimbabwe in its Corruption Perceptions Index.

Everything about the spies was comically passé, including the technology - bags exchanged in train stations, shortwave radio, invisible ink. It all invites the question: Why did the FBI expose them before they were able to do anything substantive for their paymasters? The fact that Washington exchanged the 10 for four Russians accused of spying for the West suggests these amateur spooks are simply bargaining chips - or meant to send the message that not even amateur spooks will be tolerated on U.S. soil.

That Moscow should have maintained them conveys how dysfunctional the Russian state has become. These pathetic agents confirm the gulf between the neo-czarist illusions of grandeur and the reality of a country surpassed in economic and technological achievement by many Asian competitors. What kind of bureaucrat allows an agent of Russian origin who speaks Spanish with a thick Slavic accent to claim he is Uruguayan, as "Juan Lazaro," one of the men arrested by the FBI, routinely did in the U.S.?

In his book China's Second Revolution, Eugenio Bregolat, a former Spanish ambassador in Beijing and Moscow, compared China's successful reform process since 1978 with the decadent sequence of events that began with Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost and ended with Vladimir Putin's emergence in Russia. For him, the key lies in the quality of the Communist leadership.

Whereas China's Deng Xiaoping had a clear vision of a midterm path to a market economy that postponed political liberation to the distant future and possessed the skills to defeat his opponents within the state, Mr. Gorbachev never wanted to dismantle the system and was clueless in his efforts to suppress dissent, as his defeat at the hands of Boris Yeltsin during an attempted coup by Communist retrogrades ultimately proved. As for Mr. Yeltsin, he had an intuition about a democratic, capitalistic Russia but no understanding of the institutional underpinnings of a market democracy. Mr. Putin was the result.

One may differ with part of this analysis, but there is some truth in the idea that present-day Russia stemmed from the failure of a reform process that started with Mr. Gorbachev and never found its bearings.

In a recent article in Spain's ABC newspaper, Alberto Sotillo said "the USSR was a very shoddy and sloppy place … but the things they did right - they really did right." Soviet espionage was indeed able to penetrate powerful circles in the United States, including placing a network of agents in various departments of the U.S. government. It is as yet unclear whether Mr. Putin and company can get anything right.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute.

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