Shadows of the Past: Politics, Cooperation, and Russian Spies

Lately, much attention has been paid to the deepening rift between the West and Russia, which commentators describe as “[…] at their worst since the Cold War […]”,[1] and rightly so. The Ukraine conflict has proved to be a major source of tension between Russia and the West, with each side offering their own conflicting narrative of the conflict. The United States has repeatedly claimed that Russian forces are backing the separatists in Ukraine, supplying them with arms, training, and troops.[2] Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that the volunteer battalions fighting on behalf of the Ukrainian government are acting as NATO’s ‘foreign legion’, a charge NATO has dismissed.[3] This tension between NATO and Russia has been exacerbated by an increase in Russian military flights near NATO countries, with NATO intercepts of Russian aircraft increasing threefold.[4]

Photo courtesy of MARIAJONER, © 2015, some rights reserved
Photo courtesy of MARIAJONER, © 2015, some rights reserved

The most recent international incident, however, revolves around espionage, an issue that seemingly refused to die out with the end of the Cold War. On 24 January, 2015, the FBI charged three men with serving as agents for Russia in New York.[5] These agents had, reportedly, “[…] been directed to collect intelligence on potential United States sanctions against the Russian Federation and on efforts by the United States to develop alternative energy resources […]”.[6] Russia, for its part, has denied these claims[7] and vowed reciprocal action.[8]

While it seems an anachronistic issue to be relegated to the Cold War or John le Carré novels, espionage has been a recurrent thorn in Russia-West relations. A spy ring of ‘deep cover’ operatives was broken up in 2010,[9] with ten Russian agents pleading guilty to conspiracy.[10] Furthermore, the Russian government has been implicated in the death of Russian dissident (and ex-KGB spy) Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in 2006 with polonium-210.[11] According to the New York Times, the killing took Anglo-Russian relations to what was then considered a post-Cold War low, and now with relations between Russia and the West at a new low the British government has finally launched a formal inquiry into the circumstances of Litvinenko’s death.[12] Clearly, the shadowy world of espionage is very much alive in the twenty-first century, and a major obstacle to a full rapprochement between the West and Russia.

That being said, the West and Russia have come a long way towards cooperation on several issues. Despite all the aforementioned craziness going on between the West and Russia, both parties have engaged in limited cooperation with regards to security concerns in the Middle East. U.S. officials have declared that Russia has played, and continues to play, a constructive role in nuclear talks with Iran.[13] This cooperation is notable not only because of its position as a now-rare bright spot in the West’s relations with Russia, but also because it brings with it the possibility of reaching a lasting nuclear agreement between Iran and the broader international community, something the West has been incapable of securing on its own. Similarly, the United States and Russia have set about to increase their cooperation against the Islamic State through intelligence sharing.[14] While admittedly not the height of cooperation, this small step is part of a larger pivot towards cooperation, one that hopefully is a taste of greater cooperation yet to come.

The dichotomy evident in the dynamic between Russia and the West is fascinating, if troubling. It presents both danger and hope: danger of sliding back into the antagonistic relations of the Cold War, but hope too of a better and brighter future through expanded cooperation and understanding. The continued prevalence of espionage as a source of tension in relations between the West and Russia is potentially more threatening to international stability than the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. While the conflict in Ukraine has certainly undermined President Putin’s efforts to build international goodwill through the Sochi Olympics,[15] the relatively continuous nature of espionage incidents suggests a running rivalry between the West and Russia, meaning that individual sources of tension (like the Ukrainian conflict) are merely symptoms of a larger problem. This larger problem is not, as many have claimed, a second Cold War, but rather the lingering Cold War mentality in both Russia and the West. This mentality, which is clearly visible through Cold War-esque espionage incidents, prevents a full normalization of relations between the West and Russia.

While the aforementioned instances of cooperation do prove the possibility of cooperation between Russia and the West, they must be the beginning of greater cooperation and expanded people to people programs. Cooperation at a governmental level is crucial to building trust between the governments of Russia and the West. However, people to people programs should be seen as equally important, as they present the opportunity for communities to erase lingering Cold War mentalities and rebuild public trust and faith between peoples. The Ukrainian conflict and espionage incidents are indicative of the lingering shadows of the past, shadows that have no place in the construction of a brighter and safer future. In the end, the most reliable way of ensuring safe and peaceful relations between Russia and the West is by breaking down the outdated narrative that presents the West and Russia as bitter rivals and supplanting it with one that praises cooperation and mutual understanding.
















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