The ten arrested Russian spies have arrived in Vienna, and shortly will be back in Moscow. Sentenced last night in New York, they gave their real Russian names, pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to time served — a few short days.
Never has a spy swap been orchestrated so quickly. In the era of the Cold War, there were plenty of swaps. The most famous was that of KGB Colonel Rudolf Abel for the U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1962. Abel was the name he adopted, when he lived in Greenwich Village and Brooklyn, and posed as an artist. In all the swaps, Russian spies were exchanged after having already served real time in American prisons, and after they had been thoroughly interrogated.
Later, the Soviets exchanged political dissidents who were given freedom in exchange for their spies. The most famous was that of Natan Sharansky. Sharanksy and three low-level Western spies (Czech citizen Jaroslav Javorský and West German citizens Wolf-Georg Frohn and Dietrich Nistroy) were exchanged for Czech spies Karl Koecher and Hana Koecher held in the USA, Soviet spy Yevgeni Zemlyakov, Polish spy Jerzy Kaczmarek and GDR spy Detlef Scharfenorth (the latter three held in Western Germany) in 1986 on Glienicke Bridge.
Attorney General Eric Holder, in a statement for television and the press, readily admitted that what lay behind the exchange was not issues of national security, but the Obama administration’s concern for diplomatic relations with Vladimir Putin’s new Russia. As a New York Times story put it, “President Obama has made the ‘reset’ of Russian-American relations a top foreign policy priority, and the quiet collaboration over the spy scandal indicates that the Kremlin likewise values the warmer ties.”
The issue, however, is whether the results are equally beneficial to both the United States and Russia. Clearly, while our government is bending over backwards to play nice with Putin, the Russian government is up to its old ways in dealing with the United States, as the placement of these sleeper spies indicates.
Some commentators have argued that exchanging them makes sense, since they never got a chance to engage in actual espionage, and hence had been arrested only for money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent of Russia. That argument misses the point.
These spies were meant not only to recruit others who would do the actual spying — hence the large sums of money in their homes obviously meant to be used to pay recruits — but also to try and obtain positions or placements where they could gain access to the kind of information that is not readily available in press stories or on Google.
The best example of this is the case of young Mikhail Semenko, who never adopted a false American name. Semenko came to America to study international relations and Asia studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. After graduating, he got a job with a travel agency called Travel All Russia, and moved with the firm to Arlington, Virginia. But Semenko was from the start an SVR agent, sent to the United States to move up the ladder and eventually gain a position from which he could be of use.
As a story in the London Telegraph reveals, Semenko tried to obtain jobs at both the liberal New America Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Both think tanks, as we know, are closely connected to the Obama administration. Had he been hired by either of them, Semenko would have been in a good position to eventually either get an actual job somewhere in the government — just as Soviet era spies did in the 1940s — or to have regular contact with administration figures who might have shared inside information with him as part other job activities. As the British newspaper explained, “Semenko attended numerous think tank events and was an assiduous networker even for a Washingtonian. … [H]e appeared determined to secure employment closer to the heart of the US government.”
Clearly, both the Russian and American governments hope that with the exchange a done deal, and the spies back in their native Russia, the arrests and the drama will quickly be forgotten. In another week, it will simply be yesterday’s news. Only time will tell whether years from now, we will suddenly learn that the ten were more successful than we imagined, and had recruited others who managed to do actual damage.