Meeting colleagues in Moscow during the first week of July inevitably led to conversations about the 10 Russian agents arrested in America.
Some acquaintances noted that they had not done anything much different from what any think-tank analyst does. I had to point out that policy wonks and scholars generally use their own names and do not conceal their activities.
Setting up a big-time spy swap to resolve this scandal will make Russia’s leaders feel like they are back in the good old days of superpower parity. That might even make the entire episode worth the money for them.
Explanations for why 10 Russians were living in the U.S. under “deep cover” and accomplishing nothing of real value have emphasized old ways of thinking, Cold War habits, and efforts to revive Russia’s defense capability.
But these accounts have missed the crucial point: The waste of money and talent is the norm for much of what Russia does on the global stage, and it is nothing new. Russia consistently squanders large sums chasing prestige, with much of the money ending up in the pockets of corrupt officials.
Back in the U.S.S.R., the space program was a prime example. Parallel to the scientific and military space effort, dominated by Soviet cosmonauts, the U.S.S.R. had a program to launch representatives of fraternal socialist countries into orbit. The program would have been far less expensive if the foreign comrades had been allowed to travel on regularly scheduled scientific flights. Instead, the entire fellow-travelers effort was operated separately, with its own budget. The flights were purely propaganda, squandering both money and the opportunity to engage in serious collaborative efforts. The people who ran the program traveled abroad to recruit participants, and their budget was substantial.
Another example of Soviet waste was in the official cultural-exchange program with the United States. American hard-liners regularly criticized the exchanges for allowing the Soviet Union to send scientists and engineers to learn America’s latest developments, while the Americans sent historians and literature specialists to study arcane topics in the U.S.S.R.
The notion that the Soviets were operating a carefully targeted espionage program was undermined when we Americans learned that officials in the Soviet Ministry of Higher Education, which administered the exchange program on the Soviet side, were selling places on the exchange for cash. This was not evidence of careerist aspirations of would-be participants, but rather reflected the serious income supplement that could be derived from buying V.C.R.’s and blue jeans in the U.S. and selling them at home.
Post-Soviet Russia fares little better. An article in Vedomosti at the end of June reported that each of the dozen Olympic medals Russians won at Vancouver cost an average of 350 million rubles, or more than $11.5 million.
The list of ways Russian officials squander and steal money seems endless. Gazprom’s production costs exceed those of any comparable enterprise in the world. Road construction in Russia is legendary for poor quality and massive costs. Russia admits a higher proportion of its population to higher education than any other country in the world, yet outside the energy sector Russian labor productivity is equivalent to what we see in countries with far lower levels of education. Significant expenditures for education and science in the past decade have produced few visible results.
Given the record of squandered funds and poor returns, it should not be surprising that Russia’s foreign intelligence service would run a group of “sleeper agents” who received large bundles of cash and accomplished nothing indictable. Rather than representing evidence of active espionage, the entire episode looks more like a painfully familiar story: officials handling large amounts of cash for a priority program with minimal accountability.
Ironically, with its exposure, the program may have paid off beyond its sponsors’ wildest dreams: Russia again looks like an elite espionage empire. Americans’ aversion to seeing innocent people sit in jail has led to a swap of “spies,” with innocent Russian prisoners like Igor Sutiagin admitting guilt in order to be exchanged for folks who are genuinely guilty, even if they achieved nothing.
Harley Balzer, associate professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University.