Why Did Moscow Admit the Spy Suspects Are Russian?

Suspected Russian spy Anna Chapman, who was arrested by the FBI this week.
Jul 01, 2010

By Carl Schreck / Moscow

After U.S. authorities on June 28 announced they had unmasked an intricate network of alleged Russian spies, most of whom were operating under false identities, Moscow conspicuously distanced itself from the suspects. The accused — with vanilla names like "Richard Murphy" and "Cynthia Mills" — "were not Russian diplomats or even Russian citizens," pro-Kremlin lawmaker Nikolai Kovalyov told the Interfax news agency on Tuesday. According to news agency RIA-Novosti, Russian senator Alexander Torshin said the suspects were U.S. citizens, ergo the case should not affect bilateral relations. But just hours after the officials' comments were published Tuesday, Moscow took an unusual step: It claimed the accused sleeper agents as Russian citizens.

In a curt statement released June 29, the Russian Foreign Ministry admitted that the 11 suspected spies were in fact "Russian citizens who ended up on U.S. territory at different times." The suspects, the ministry said, "did not commit any acts aimed against the interests of the United States. We assume that they will be treated normally in their detention facilities, and that U.S. authorities will guarantee them access to Russian consular officials and lawyers." The statement gave no further details about the suspects, but it was enough to blow any cover the suspects had hoped to maintain. The family of one of the accused, Spanish-language journalist Vicky Pelaez, has insisted in media interviews that her only connection to Russia is her love of Tchaikovsky. But asked by TIME whether all 11 of the alleged operatives were Russian citizens, a duty officer at the ministry's press office replied, "All of them."

The admission has little precedent in the history of Russian spy games, say former Soviet intelligence agents and security experts. U.S. authorities allege that several of the suspects were intelligence agents known as "illegals" operating without diplomatic cover under assumed identities. "In Soviet times, the government would never recognize an 'illegal' as a Soviet citizen," writer and retired Soviet foreign intelligence officer Mikhail Lyubimov tells TIME. "We live in different times now."

Oleg Gordievsky, the former deputy head of the KGB in London who defected to Britain in 1985, believes the multi-year FBI investigation that led to Monday's arrests likely yielded enough evidence of the suspects' guilt as to force Moscow to claim the accused agents. "It would be silly to deny it," Gordievsky tells TIME in a telephone interview from London.

The alleged Russian operatives have not been accused of espionage. Instead they are facing charges of conspiring to act as unregistered agents for a foreign government, a crime punishable by up to five years in prison, according to an FBI affidavit. Nine of the suspects face charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering, punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison. The FBI alleges that Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, tasked the agents with infiltrating U.S. policymaking circles — though there is little indication they gleaned sensitive information. By claiming the suspects as Russians, Gordievsky says, Moscow is trying to downplay the significance of the purported spy network. "Russia is trying to show that their activities were very modest and didn't damage the interests of the United States," he says.

The strategy, however, is unlikely to prompt U.S. authorities to release the suspected spies anytime soon in the kind of spy exchanges of the Cold War era, says Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence with STRATFOR, a global-intelligence company. "Don't look for this to be quick quid pro quo, where [Russians] are exchanged for people we want who are being held in Russia," Burton tells TIME in a phone interview from STRATFOR's headquarters in Austin, TX. "Those kinds of things haven't happened for several years." Burton claims that the U.S. Attorney's Office doesn't touch cases unless there's "at least 90% certainty" of a conviction. "What they will do now is separate the suspects and interview them individually and try to get an admission of what exactly they were doing, establish identity as best they can and look at it in the context of where it all fits in with SVR operations on U.S. soil," Burton says.

While unusual, there is at least one recorded case in which the Soviet Union admitted one of its "illegals" was a Soviet citizen, says Leonid Mlechin, a Russian journalist who has authored several books about Cold War intelligence operations. In 1983, Swiss authorities arrested spy Vitaly Shlykov, who was posing as a U.S. citizen and had secured sensitive information about NATO and its allies. In custody, Shlykov identified himself as a Soviet citizen, which gave him access to officials from the Soviet consulate in Zurich, the former spy told Mlechin in a 2006 interview. Shlykov was eventually sentenced to three years in a Swiss prison, and was released early for good behavior. He could not be reached for comment this week, but in interviews in the past he has said that while he owned up to his Soviet citizenship, he never admitted to being a spy while he was in custody in Switzerland. "If he is scared for his life, a spy had the right to admit he was a Soviet citizen," Mlechin tells TIME. "But he could never admit that he was a spy."

The Russian government should be praised for claiming the suspects in this latest spy scandal, says Alexander Golts, a respected independent defense and security analyst. "In one way or another, they were acting on behalf of Russia, Russia took responsibility for them," he says. "Up until [the admission], it was pretty cynical of Russian officials to reject them." Given the negligible intelligence the alleged network appeared to have gathered, the suspects might have been better off openly declaring their presence to U.S. authorities. "Any talk of real espionage in this case is ridiculous," Golts says. "If they had just registered as lobbyists, they would have been just fine."

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