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When did espionage become so dull?

RIA Novosti

13:32 23/12/2010

December 23 (RIA Novosti) - Hard on the heels of the WikiLeaks scandal comes yet another spy dispute, this time between Russia and Britain. London has expelled a Russian diplomat for what Foreign Secretary William Hague called overstepping the unwritten rules of espionage and Russia has responded tit-for-tat by sending a Brit home.

This is hardly a scandal – each side pocketed one ball in this game of diplomatic billiards, so it’s a draw. And the game was played with traditional, impersonal diplomatic politeness. The Russian Embassy was told on December 10 that the official in question must leave within the week, which he did. On December 16, the Russian Embassy replied in kind, and a British diplomat was sent packing, to return to his own snowbound homeland.

London clearly expected a retaliatory gesture. Foreign Secretary Hague announced the results of this billiard game only on December 21, after the British diplomat had been expelled from Russia. He described Russia’s response as groundless and expressed hope for the normalization of relations. Everything was comically routine.

Where is the good old Cold War where you need it? Back then, the ramifications of this dispute would have lasted for weeks.

Hands off the secret source

Diplomats are expelled for a variety of reasons. It’s not exactly difficult to identify those officials that work for intelligence agencies. Sometimes it is a purely political move. In this case, British newspapers reported that the expelled Russian diplomat had overstepped the mark, crossing the line between what is regarded acceptable and unacceptable behavior for an intelligence officer. The collection of any information of interest to intelligence agencies is considered acceptable behavior.

All spies working undercover as diplomats do roughly the same job as regular diplomats and journalists in every country. They gather information. The only difference is that they put it into different baskets and it is processed differently. That’s it. There is nothing sinister about it.

The Brits claim that the Russian diplomat was discovered approaching an individual rather than stealing information or entering sensitive buildings. He was asked to leave this secret source alone. These things happen.

One-off expulsions never produce any meaningful results, but they are inevitable when the rules of the game are broken. In this case, the expulsion is a message to the other side to “cool off.” Russia’s retaliation carries the same message.

The case of Zatuliveter

This would have been an entirely routine incident had it not been for the intrigue surrounding the case of Katia Zatuliveter. Foreign Secretary Hague said that the Russian diplomat’s expulsion was entirely unconnected with the allegations leveled against Zatuliveter. The 25 year-old Russian had studied in Britain before landing a job in 2008 as a research assistant for Mike Hancock, Liberal Democrat MP for Portsmouth South. Hancock chaired the All-Party Group on Russia in the House of Commons, where his unabashed affection for the country certainly raised some eyebrows. He was ultimately removed from that post, but continues to sit on the defense select committee.

Zatuliveter acted as the Russia group’s secretary and accompanied Hancock on his trips to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg, where the MP also serves. Hancock has been accused of hiring a Russian agent who supplied sensitive information from the House of Commons and PACE directly to the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency. Zatuliveter was arrested and held in an immigration center outside London before the UK Home Office announced that she was to be deported.

Hancock’s colleagues in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in PACE – Matyas Eorsi (Hungary) and Serhiy Holovaty (Ukraine) – told newspapers that they had long suspected Hancock. They said he had always invited young, leggy Russian girls to the group’s secret meetings at L’Eveil des Sans, an upscale restaurant in Strasbourg. His glamorous but dubious companions also accompanied him at secret discussions regarding Europe’s future.

Portsmouth, which Hancock represents in Parliament, is a port city. His father and grandfather were sailors. And he gave a salty response worthy of a sailor to the accusations, calling them “absolute rubbish.” He said that the defense committee’s papers had been leaked to the press in the past and that he had never seen any information in them that was not available from open sources. He also said that he took not only Russian but also Bulgarian and Romanian girls to sessions in Strasbourg, adding: “Who the hell would be interested in what the Lib Dem delegation was doing and what we were thinking? It's absolute nonsense.”

Zatuliveter declared that she is no Anna Chapman. She hired a lawyer and will now appeal what she considers to be her illegal deportation in court. The Home Office is no doubt unhappy that it has been ensnared in this case.

Le Carre’s verdict

If the spy scandals during the Cold War had been this routine, the world would have been deprived of great spy novelists like Ian Fleming or John Le Carre. There would have been no James Bond or George Smiley. Sadly, this is the direction we seem to be moving in; this is exactly what these masters of the spy novel predicted after the recent spy swaps and expulsions.

When the Americans arrested 11 Russian sleeper agents, including the darling of the British press Anna Chapman (aka Agent 90-60-90), David John Moore Cornwell (aka John Le Carre) wrote an article for the Guardian about the affair. Not only is Le Carre an outstanding spy novelist, he also served with the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6. So, out of respect for the man, I’ll permit myself a lengthy quote:

“Once upon a time spies had motives. There was capitalism and there was communism. You could choose. And all right, there was the money and the sex and the blackmail, and needing to get your own back on your superiors by betraying them when you'd been passed over for promotion, and there was the God-feeling, and playing the world's game, and the whole familiar repertoire of noble and grubby motives, but in the end you either spied for a cause or against it.

“But what in heaven's name was their cause? Who did they think they were protecting in their distorted, programmed little minds as they tried and tried again, unsuccessfully, to slither up the slippery pole of western society? What was there to choose between Mother Russia and Mother America, two huge continents out of control drowning together in the oily waters of capitalism? Was it really only the name on the lifebelt that made the difference? Mother Russia right or wrong?”

The world is like a tiny, cramped communal apartment, and naturally everyone wants to know what everyone else is doing. But peeping through the keyhole is not as exciting as breaking down the door. Espionage has become boring.

Once there was an emergency brake on the train of diplomacy, and when it was pulled, the train would come to a screeching, abrupt halt. In 1971, the Brits expelled 105 Soviet diplomats in Operation Foot. In 1985, after Oleg Gordievsky defected to London, the UK expelled almost all the KGB agents operating there. Under Ronald Reagan in 1986, the Americans asked 80 Soviet diplomats to leave. In 2001, they expelled another six, and then 45 more.

Those were the days. Now that emergency brake is no longer used. The train makes regular stops. Four Russians and one American get off at the next stop, some Brits get off at the next one.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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