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The Meaning of the Russia- U.S. Spy Swap

At the time of the arrests, human rights organizations “criticized Mr. Sutyagin’s prosecution, saying it suggested a Soviet-style wariness of contacts between Russian scientists and foreigners on the part of the security services, rather than success in arresting a foreign agent.” As another news report noted, “his case has been criticized by human-rights advocates and in some Western capitals as an example of Russia's spy agencies railroading innocent specialists through a compliant court system.”

Indeed, the forthcoming swap is another throwback to the 60s and 70s, when the Soviet regime swapped unwanted dissidents who were creating political turmoil at home with actual Soviet spies operating in the West. “‘We're rolling back the clock,’ said Yuri Ryzhov, a former Russian ambassador and prominent academic who heads a commission that has defended scholars accused of treason. ‘It's the 1970s now.’”

It is yet one more example of the Cold War-era so-called “moral equivalence,” in which the Putin government equates innocent political offenders or those who get on the wrong side of the Russian government with actual Russian or Soviet spies who were genuinely seeking Western secrets, of either an industrial or military nature.

Both the Putin government and the Obama administration, however, are signing on to this charade. The Russians get back their would-be sleeper agents, while the United States avoids an embarrassing trial that might turn U.S. public opinion against rapprochement with Moscow. Obama can thus pretend that all is well in the American-Russian relationship and that he and Putin have left this little insignificant matter behind them. And when others try to point out that men like Sutyagin were never guilty of any real offense, Putin can point to his newly signed confession as evidence that he now admitted his guilt. The FBI will not have to reveal counterespionage tactics used to catch the ten, and what others have predicted would have been a “pall” over the relations between our country and Russia will have been avoided.

How sad that in our own time, the Obama administration is engaging in this immoral and cynical example of realpolitik.