Streetwise Professor

November 13, 2010

Tell Me Another One

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:00 pm

Kommersant ran a breathless story about the alleged defection of a Russian SVR (the foreign intelligence service) officer who was responsible for Russian operations in the US, including the spy ring busted in July.  Maybe the essence of the story is true, but some details seem to be pure BS, which calls the rest into question.

Most wildly implausible bit:

The unnamed source also claimed that American investigators had tortured Vasenkov, breaking three ribs and a leg in the process. A retired SVR officer interviewed by Russia Profile found the claims credible, and compared this to the methods used in Iraqi prisons, saying they were just another sign of lowering the bar in modern-day spy games. “These are Iraqi methods,” the officer said. “What comes to mind are the videos we saw from Iraqi prisons. They could not outplay him honestly and resorted to impermissible foul play. Yes, they probably always do that in American football, but this is not American football.”

Uhm, Vasenkov/Lazaro was arraigned in the US on July 8, and on the a plane to Vienna for the swap the next day.  He was seen in open court.  No press account mentioned a limp or a cast, and during his statement he did not mention anything about getting beaten up.   Kind of hard not to notice when somebody has a recently broken leg.

And spare me the Iraqi prison stuff.  We know all about what happens in Russian prisons to regular people.  Captured agents, one can only imagine.  The Russians probably taught the Iraqis a good deal, back in the day, and perhaps the Russians learned something from the Iraqis too.

The other suspicious part of the story seems like boob bait for the babushkas:

Kommersant also quotes an unidentified Kremlin official as suggesting that a Russian hit squad was already planning to kill the colonel. “We know who he is and where he is. Whether he betrayed for money or was simply caught up in a situation, make no mistake – Mercader has already been sent to get him,” a senior Kremlin aide told the paper, in obvious reference to Ramon Mercader, the Soviet secret agent believed to have killed Leon Trotsky with an ice pick. The Kremlin source said Shcherbakov would spend the rest of his life fearing retribution.

Yeah.  Sure you know where he is.  And if you did, sure, you could get to him with an ice pick, no problem, thereby avenging the insult to the Motherland and proving yet again that the fate of Traitors is Death! Death! Death!

And it’s kind of incongruous, don’t you think, that in one paragraph we have former SVR officials tut-tutting about alleged (and almost certainly fantastical) “Iraqi methods” and tackle football resulting in a few broken bones, and in another current Kremlin officials boasting about the inevitability and desirability of cold blooded murder?  So, on the one hand, Russians are shocked! shocked! that their spies get smacked around a little, but think it’s just copacetic to whack ours.

As usual, there’s all sorts of Kremlinology ricocheting around to explain the leak.  One theory is that it’s part of a FSB plot to get rid of SVR head Fradkov and roll the SVR back into the FSB, thereby undoing one of Yeltsin’s early post-collapse policies.  That may be true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that doesn’t happen, even if the FSB would like it to happen.  It is SOP for authoritarian leaders to have multiple intelligence/security services.  This is wise for a variety of reasons.  One can be played against the other.  Information from one can be checked against that from the other.  Information is power; concentrating all the information in one entity gives that entity all the power.  In a dyarchy, too, it is almost inconceivable that the two leaders would permit concentration of major intelligence assets in a single agency.  (Yes, there is still the GRU, but a reconsolidation of the old KGB would upset the current precarious balance between the FSB and GRU.)

Some of the revelations, if true, would be pretty shocking, and put the SVR in a pretty bad light.  The alleged defector purportedly has a daughter living in the US.  He had turned down a promotion–a promotion that would have required him to take a polygraph exam. But all this could just be more BS in a publicity campaign against Fradkov and the SVR.  Or it could be true.  Either way, it doesn’t speak well of Russia’s security services.  Which warms the cockles of my heart.

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