Bush administration revisits spying game

Expulsions: It looks like an effort to move U.S.-Russian relations to a post-Cold War basis.

March 26, 2001

THE SUDDEN departure of two Russian diplomats followed by U.S. orders for four to leave now and 46 more by July sounds like nostalgia for the Cold War.

The administration hints that it is the opposite, a unilateral move for a new relationship. But first, Russia is retaliating in kind.

Reportedly, Russian intelligence operations in this country receded after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, but expanded when former spy Vladimir Putin became president.

There has been a lot of spying, both ways. The FBI counterspy Robert Hanssen was arrested as a longtime Soviet-Russian mole. He was identified by secret Russian documents that some counterpart must have brought over. Two Russian diplomats recently defected, leading to the suspicion they had been spies and been turned.

Russia convicted an American arms dealer, Edmond Pope, of espionage, then pardoned him. Last month, the Russians arrested an American graduate student, John Edward Tobin, on drug charges and called him a spy in training.

Bulgaria just sent three Russian diplomats packing. Poland kicked out nine last year. A Russian diplomat was caught in 1999 listening to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright from a bug in the State Department.

All of which raises the question of what the spying is for. Technical means have superceded much of the human work. Troop deployments are photographed from space. Audio eavesdropping is ubiquitous.

The United States presumably has a big lead on the technical side. So a reciprocal reduction of human intelligence would penalize Russia.

If it is a matter of fathoming the other side's intentions, public debate in Washington provides the best information. And Moscow is more open than it used to be.

The Bush administration appears not to want to regard Russia as "the other" superpower. That implied putdown offends President Putin and old Cold Warriors in his military and intelligence establishments.

Actually, helping Russia evolve into a stable, free-market democracy and good world citizen -- if possible -- is among the paramount interests of the United States. Russia's ability to aid or undermine U.S. objectives is enormous. Its weaponry remains dangerous in its own hands, a menace in others'.

The U.S.-Russian relationship is probably never going to be spy-free. A diplomatic follow-up to these expulsions should attempt to convince Mr. Putin that the object is not to revert to the Cold War, but to get past it.

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