Unsettling allegations of espionage against the United States have once again surfaced from the Kremlin, bringing strains in the Russo-American relationship back into the spotlight. Senior Russian officials said on Tuesday that they had detained a trained CIA official disguised as an American political officer, and accused him of attempting to recruit a Russian security official as a spy. Russia’s Federal Security Service said that American Ryan Christopher Fogle was carrying novice spy gear, cash, a recruitment letter, and bad wigs when detained, casting a glow of uncertainty on otherwise serious allegations. Spying has been a problem that has plagued the Russo-American relationship in the past, and this individual instance is sure to bring past concerns back to center stage.
Concerns related to espionage between the former Cold War rivals are rampant, but this instance has drawn a unique category of ire from both sides, with the U.S. claiming that the public expulsion of Fogle was undertaken as a form of flamboyant theatrics. Russian expert Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, has claimed that the public exposure of Fogle as a spy insinuates that Russia is using the scandal for domestic political purposes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who routinely accuses the United States of meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs, has recently portrayed opposition leaders as American puppets, and has ordered a crackdown on nongovernmental organization (NGOs) receiving foreign funding within his country’s borders. The public arrest of Fogle as a CIA operative fits the Kremlin’s narrative of excessive American involvement in Russia’s domestic affairs, and grants Putin the leverage he needs to further attack political opposition and solidify his firm grip on the Russian government.
Despite heated rhetoric by state-influenced media outlets, the incident has failed to gain much traction among the highest brasses of the American and Russian governments. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met on the sidelines of the two-day Arctic Council Conference in Kiruna, Sweden to discuss escalating tensions in the Syrian conflict, but refused to discuss the topic of Fogle’s expulsion. Lavrov told reporters after the meeting that neither he nor Kerry raised the subject, and that further discussion of the topic would be redundant since all pertinent information has already been made public.
The Putin administration’s refusal to discuss the topics in such a setting further intensifies speculation regarding the domestic motives behind the Russian president’s outrage, and causes many watching the incident closely to ask if Putin’s outrage is genuine or if it is politically tinged stagecraft.