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America Will Always Lose Russia’s Tit-for-Tat Spy Games

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Еще немного “шпионских” страстей.

A recent BuzzFeed article outlined behind-the-scenes efforts by Russian and American diplomats to end the tit-for-tat expulsion of embassy personnel between the two sides. Reports say American officials are reacting positively to Moscow’s signals to end the feud and are looking to “turn the page” and improve relations.

While nobody should be against efforts to improve relations, let’s not fool ourselves as to who came out ahead in this contest. “Ending the feud” is exactly what the Russians want — because they won. The United States lost far more from the expulsions than Russia, and, worse, it acceded to a long-sought-after and long-rejected Russian demand that all interactions conform to the practice of parity. In fact, there’s a pattern that I observed during my years in the CIA: In 2016 — as in 2001, 1994, and 1986 — the United States tried to punish Russia but mishandled the effort, eventually cried uncle, and left Russia in a better position than when it started.

Let’s recap the most recent effort to “punish” Russia.

As we now know, Russia utilized a multipronged attack to destabilize our democratic system and damage our leadership abroad during the 2016 presidential election. We are learning more every day about the scale and audaciousness of the trespass, and it continues to disrupt our political process. Denis McDonough, former President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, characterized the effort as an attack on the “heart of our system.” Some observers have even called it the “crime of the century,” and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner described his efforts to uncover the attack as “very well … the most important thing I do in my public life.”

What consequences did the Kremlin face for its brazen assault on our system?

Following a flurry of expulsions, both sides have settled on a position as outlined in an Aug. 31 State Department statement, titled “Achieving Parity in Diplomatic Missions,” that seeks to lock in the status quo and focus on efforts to improve relations.

Our mission in Moscow housed almost 1,800 people in 2006 but now has only 455. President Barack Obama cut Russia’s missions in the United States from 490 to 455. Since Russia refuses to hire Americans to work in its diplomatic facilities, the most powerful country in the world has fewer Americans in Russia than Russia has diplomats in the United States. Russia also maintains more diplomatic missions in the United States. Further, Russia finally achieved a long-sought demand that the two sides treat all interactions through the prism of reciprocity. All previous U.S. administrations have rejected this effort as part of Russia’s effort to force the United States and other interlocutors to accept a world of coequal spheres of influence.

That is, we lost.

Vladimir Putin’s singular goal is to win re-election in 2018, ensuring that nothing thwarts his ability to stage-manage the outcome. This drawdown of our diplomats and spies will make Putin’s job much easier.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations share blame for this outcome. The Obama administration held numerous secret strategy meetings and debates throughout the second half of 2016 but was ultimately unable to agree on an appropriate response. Each effort to consider action and weigh the possible consequences led to only hand-wringing and inaction.

In fairness, there were no easy answers, and such confusion has been a standard outcome as the United States has tried to determine how to best deter, defend, or retaliate against attacks in the new world of cyberintrusions.

However, by December 2016, and following the victory of Donald Trump, the Obama administration announced a series of measures that amounted to a slap on the wrist to the Kremlin. A small fraction of known Russian spies, 35, would be expelled, and the United States would close two vacation properties that the Russians often misused for espionage purposes. That is, the punishment for the chaos inflicted by the Russians during the election was what might normally be expected following a much lower-impact spy case. Indeed, the arrests of spies Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen led to more robust responses. As Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, noted, “The punishment did not fit the crime.”

Following an interval to determine whether the incoming Trump administration would radically reorder its relationship with Moscow, the Kremlin eventually retaliated, insisting that the U.S. mission in Moscow draw down by more than 750 positions, seeking parity in the size of the Russian and U.S. embassies in their respective countries. The United States, in turn, closed the Russian consulate in San Francisco but allowed the Russians to maintain a small numerical advantage in diplomatic properties, at which time the United States called for an end to the tit-for-tat action, accepting parity as the final result.

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