Bemused Russians spy a conspiracy against President Obama

View from Moscow
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The Independent US

The American security services have gone rogue. If you believe the Russian press, that's the only logical explanation for the eruption of the current bizarre spy scandal.

If it is usual practice for governments caught spying to remain silent or issue faux-outraged denials, the Russian government's initial reaction to the arrest of 11 people, at least some of whom it has admitted are its citizens, was true to form. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told Bill Clinton the American police were "out of control", "throwing people in jail", and the Foreign Ministry called the allegations "baseless".

But in the past three days the mood in official Moscow has gradually changed. Not much more has been said: Putin and President Medvedev have kept a calm, unflappable silence on the affair and the Russian Foreign Ministry has said only that it hoped to offer its citizens appropriate consular assistance. But there's something in the air that is at the same time conciliatory and unapologetic.

"Russians think their security services should work actively and spy on America," said Sergei Markov, an MP for the ruling United Russia party. "It's understood that the Americans should guard their territory, so what's strange? Most Russians think of it like a football match."

But, as Markov admitted, losing 10- nil is never easy. And the loss of 10 agents (the 11th, Christopher Robert Metsos, seems to have escaped after jumping bail in Cyprus and had not resurfaced last night) and revelations about broken laptops, agents posting their details on Facebook and banal arguments with Moscow over the price of a mortgage have put a dent in the beloved foreign intelligence service's mystique.

"Imagine if James Bond opened his box of tricks and inside there was some grilled chicken, a pair of socks and a picture of a girl with a note saying, 'When you get back don't forget to mow the lawn,'" moaned Moskovsky Komsomolets, a Russian tabloid.

But the chief feeling is of bewilderment. Why, Russians are asking over and over again, would the Americans do something like this just after the friendly meeting between Medvedev and Obama? (The FBI's story – that they swooped because the suspects were about to flee – is almost universally derided.) "Personally, I think they were trying to cover up the scandal they have with that oil spill in Louisiana," suggested an accountant from Moscow.

A blogger for the liberal Echo of Moscow radio station had other ideas. "It's either self-promotion by security services fishing for more funding, the Americans trying to sabotage the reset in relations, or the Democrats trying to wring more concessions from Russia," he declared. But the most popular theory, reported amongst others by Kommersant, a reputable daily and Russia's paper of record, is that "the interests of the FBI took precedence over those of the state".

"It's America's problem," shrugged Alexei Mukhin, director of a usually well-informed think tank, when asked if the scandal could affect relations. He compared the American political structure to the Russian siloviki, the hard-line ex-spies said to surround Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. "The American siloviki decided to show Medvedev that not everything is so smooth in Russian-American relations. And they really set up their own President Obama. It's hard to imagine anything like that happening here if Obama had just visited."

And that, of course, explains the Government's relative calm. According to Markov, the Kremlin has identified two main goals: "To support Obama against his enemies and not to rock the boat."