Russia's arrest of a US spy sends a clear signal on Syria

Washington has to decide which is more important: getting the Russians to help get to the roots of the Boston Marathon bombing, or to step in militarily in the Syrian civil war.

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The bizarre arrest of a US diplomat in Moscow allegedly caught red-handed while trying to recruit a Russian intelligence officer raises more questions than answers. Why was the young CIA agent, Ryan Fogle, taking such a risk under the noses of perhaps the most assiduous counter-espionage service in the world? And why did Mr Fogle's "special technical equipment", gloatingly displayed on Russian television, look like schoolboy hiking gear, a couple of wigs and two pairs of glasses for disguise?

And why did the Russians announce this case immediately, as if it was designed to torpedo a diplomatic rapprochement under which Russia and the US would convene an urgent Syrian peace conference?

If we assume that Mr Fogle was indeed trying, as the Russians say, to approach an officer working on counter-terrorism in Chechnya and the North Caucasus region, something makes sense.

The CIA is under pressure to clarify the background of the Boston Marathon bombing carried out by two ethnic Chechens. The Russian security service, the FSB, has promised to help the Americans, but the CIA would certainly want to know what the Russians might be holding back and if, for example, there was a funding network in North America.

Still, this is an extraordinary risk. Such is the level of surveillance of the American embassy that recruiting a Russian spy in Moscow is seen as impossibly risky, according to the former CIA case officer Robert Baer. The presumption must be that any Russian officer who shows interest in being recruited is a "dangle" put up by the FSB as bait. The only plausible explanation is that someone thought the blond-wigged Mr Fogle, who was probably coming to the end of his tour in Moscow, was expendable if it all went wrong.

As for the boy scout spying kit, this looks like it was part of an FSB set-up to impress a domestic audience. President Vladimir Putin finds it useful to have the Americans as an enemy. Even more so when they come to Moscow asking for help with domestic terrorism and, it appears, cannot resist playing the old Cold War games.

Everyone knows that treachery pays, but the sign-on terms, set out in a letter written in the disarming style of a Nigerian email scam and offering a million dollars a year plus bonus for "helpful information", are way over the top. According to Kommersant newspaper, the CIA's most successful recent recruit, an FSB colonel who provided a stream of top-level documents and is now serving an 18-year jail sentence, received $2 million (Dh7.34 million) over six years.

Often the news of such arrests is kept under wraps for weeks or months. In this case it was announced the next day - coincidentally just as the US ambassador, Michael McFaul, was beginning a question-and-answer session on Twitter to reach out to the Russian public. The US government has complained in the past of harassment of Mr McFaul, who came to Moscow as a strong advocate of democratic reform in Russia.

Coming only days after the visit to Moscow by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, it could be argued that the FSB has gone out of its way to torpedo a diplomatic rapprochement. But the evidence suggests the FSB is not alone in wanting to send a harsh message to Washington.

Mr Kerry was kept waiting three hours to see Mr Putin. He surely would have got a more punctual reception as an ordinary senator than as secretary of state. It is reported that Mr Putin seemed bored and played with his pen throughout the meeting. Unless Mr Putin has lost his touch, such behaviour is not accidental. As a former KGB officer, he is trained to charm guests, to "mirror" their actions and make then believe he is their partner. The former president George W Bush fell for this treatment when he declared he had seen inside Mr Putin's soul.

Mr Putin seems to have concluded that the US president, Barack Obama, is weak, and that his secretary of state came as a petitioner asking for help to get his administration out of its Syrian impasse. Moscow believes it has a stronger hand than Mr Obama, and is not afraid to exploit its advantage in defence of its ally in Damascus.

That world view seems to reflect the balance of forces during the meeting on May 7 between Mr Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, which concluded with an agreement to call a Syrian peace conference.

The Russian position, as far as anyone can tell, is unchanged from the signing of the Geneva peace plan almost a year ago: no transitional government in Syria can be formed without the consent of the current regime. Mr Kerry, while insisting that Syria's president Bashar Al Assad must go, had to admit that under the terms of the Geneva plan, which calls for "mutual consent", the Assad regime will have a veto on the formation of any transitional government. This is an uncomfortable position for an administration that has long given the impression the Assad clan is finished.

A further sign that the Russians are continuing to play hardball came in the form of reports that Russia may be renegotiating its stalled contract to deliver an S-300 air defence system to Syria. Such a system would stop Israel from attacking Syrian targets at will and rule out any western-imposed no-fly zone, which is mooted as a safe haven for a future rebel government.

While it may be unlikely that Mr Putin will go ahead with this, there is a clear threat. If the US decides to arm the Syrian opposition, the Kremlin is not without means to respond.

Washington has to decide which is more important: getting the Russians to help get to the roots of the Boston Marathon bombing? Or to step in militarily in the Syrian civil war? In American domestic political terms, it's an easy choice.

So while the spy versus spy rivalry may sometimes be just a sideshow to the real business of diplomacy, in this case it is sending a clear signal to the Americans: treat us as equals, not as backward children.

On Twitter: @aphilps