- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 8, 2010

I may be one of the few who were not surprised at the unearthing of the Russian “agents” in deep cover in the United States. I also know why they were here.

For most people, it was a mystifying if not fascinating news break. More than 20 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War and during the week when a youngish, personable, non-Brezhnev-like Russian President Dmitri Medvedev shared a meal with President Obama at a Washington hamburger joint, the FBI and other agencies arrested 10 people and charged them for being “unregistered agents” (spies, in earlier parlance) for the Russian government.

The allegations against those arrested contained more lurid tidbits that even a Hollywood imagination of 30 years ago could not have fathomed: People with assumed identities of dead Americans, cash stashes buried for years, money transfers for the “mission,” invisible ink messages and extraordinarily secretive communications - this in the era of Internet, Twitter and Facebook. Even more incredulous and quite unsettling to many Americans was the notion that agents, few if any with Russian names, lived in deep cover for a decade as next-door neighbors in suburbs and cities.

When Russia, then known as the Soviet Union, was the contending world superpower, there were rational reasons for its spying in the United States and other Western countries.

First, there was Soviet industry, making everything from airplanes to tractors to televisions to toothbrushes. After all, how can a country be a superpower if it doesn’t have the capability to make airplanes, tractors and televisions, along of course with armaments and nuclear weapons? There were satellite countries with currencies that could not buy anything other than Soviet products, and there was the “non-aligned” world that had to be impressed to be won over. Industrial information from the West was an obvious source for technology and Soviet spies tried hard to get it. But apparently that “re-engineering” was not that successful. Soviet airplanes, tractors and televisions were so bad that 20 years ago, their manufacturing died almost entirely. Russian airlines bought Boeings and Airbuses in droves, and the Russian middle class, which has emerged since then, would not be caught dead buying Russian toothpaste, let alone industrial products. So, the function of the arrested agents could not have been industrial spying.

The other leg of Soviet spying was military. But Russia is a faint shadow of its past. It may still have some aging nuclear weapons, but its military has little credibility to project intercontinental prowess or even scare its neighbors, some of which have become the most ardent NATO members. So military intelligence was not the agents’ purpose.

So what was it?

It may be incomprehensible to foreigners, but it is very consistent to Russians. Power and its concentration, far more than wealth, is the vestige of a true state in the Russian mind throughout history. A security agency, the KGB or, its successor FSB, becomes the enabling all-powerful apparatus. And it must have agents in foreign countries, no matter what they actually do or information they gather. Their presence is what counts. A self-respecting FSB must have agents everywhere. They also feel the presence of agents in their midst. In 2006, the FSB website made an offer, open to Russian citizens working as spies for a foreign country, to work as double agents.

This is the culture that not only brought Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, to power but has permeated Russia for more than a decade. The siloviki, former or active FSB agents, are ubiquitous, and at some estimates they dominate at least 60 percent of any positions of power. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB under Mr. Putin, and Mr. Putin’s longtime deputy chief of staff, himself a former KGB agent, Igor Sechin, are considered to be the real string-pullers in Moscow today.

Westernized, younger Russians are all too aware of the pitfalls of fighting the system. They all know of the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at one time Russia’s richest man and head of the largest oil company, Yukos, now rotting in a Siberian prison. Mr. Putin has re-Sovietized Russia’s dominant oil and gas industry, which today is run entirely either as a state enterprise or by Kremlin cronies. It is also logical that in a society where agents dominate and not the rule of law or market economics, corruption has become endemic. In Transparency International’s latest rankings, Russia was 146 out of 180 countries, tied with Zimbabwe and below Nigeria and Uganda.

In the prevalent Russian frame of mind, there is no mystery that agents would be everywhere, including the United States. Their presence is what counts; their actual function is secondary.

Michael J. Economides is the author of “From Soviet to Putin and Back: The Dominance of Energy in Today’s Russia” (Energy Tribune Publishing, 2008).