The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Timing of the Russian spy scandal

Following the FBI's uncovering of eleven Russian spies last week, an interesting issue (beyond the photographs of Anna Chapman) comes to mind: the timing of the arrests. An article in the Economist poses a number of questions that many people have been asking themselves: was the timing an attempt by hard-line individuals in Washington to undermine the improving relationship with Moscow? Was it an attempt by Moscow hard-liners to undermine Medvedev? Or, could it have been a policy of collusion between Obama and Medvedev to undermine Vladimir Putin and strengthen the hand of the current Russian president?

The final question is particularly interesting given that the ineptitude of the spies has embarassed the Russian secret services and made them look amateurish. As a result, it may weaken the political constituency that has been so dominant since the resignation of President Yeltsin, the siloviki, and with it the position of Vladimir Putin. Although this theory is a little far-fetched, it shouldn't be entirely discounted.

Two issues make at least one of the above hypotheses likely: first, the agents don't appear to have suddenly become a security threat - they were unable to pass any useful information to Moscow; second, there were more politically expedient moments in the recent past in which to make the arrests - most notably during, and immediately following, Russia's war with Georgia in 2008. So why now? Well, it's unlikely to have been an attempt to undermine President Obama as he is said to have sanctioned the arrests. But was there a political rationale for his decision? Or, had some of the agents become more of a concern than the press is giving them credit for?

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