MOSCOW // Following the arrest of an alleged network of Russian spies by US authorities, Moscow shifted into damage control mode this week with a disclosure virtually unprecedented in the history of its intelligence affairs: it has admitted the accused covert operatives are Russian citizens.
Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement late Tuesday that the accused agents are Russian citizens and said it hoped they would be afforded access to lawyers and Russian consular officials while in US detention facilities. A woman who answered the phone at the ministry's press office this week said all 11 suspects identified by the FBI were Russian citizens, though the chief ministry spokesman, Andrei Nesterenko, on Thursday declined to give details and referred inquiries to the statements posted on the ministry's website.
The mere fact, however, that Russia claimed the alleged agents as its citizens heralds a sharp break in Moscow's typical handling of its secret operatives abroad, former Soviet intelligence officers and security experts say. The FBI says most of the 11 suspects, 10 of whom were arrested in different US cities, were "illegals" - covert agents living under assumed identities and without official cover. During the Cold War, Moscow almost never conceded that its illegals arrested by foreign governments were actually Soviet citizens, said Oleg Gordievsky, the former deputy head of the KGB in London who defected to Britain in 1985.
"The evidence collected by the FBI must be so exhaustive that it was really impossible for [Moscow] to ignore this," Mr Gordievsky said in a telephone interview from London. "They chose to admit something that the FBI had already found out." The timing of the US authorities' announcement that they had cracked the alleged spy ring has prompted speculation that the case could harm warming bilateral ties. The investigation was made public just days after a visit to the United States by Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, who met with his US counterpart, Barack Obama.
Russia's response appears to be focused on playing down the significance of the suspects' activities in the United States. In its statement this week, the Russian foreign ministry took pains to point out that the accused "did not commit any actions targeting the interests of the United States" and that it hopes the Americans will consider the increasingly "positive nature" of US-Russian relations in their approach to the case.
The suspects have not been charged with espionage. Instead, they face charges of conspiring to work secretly for a foreign government on US soil, punishable by a maximum of five years in prison. Nine suspects are accused of conspiring to commit money laundering, for which they face up to 20 years in prison. While Moscow has not formally admitted that the suspects are intelligence operatives, Russia's recognition of them as citizens looks almost like a goodwill gesture, said Fred Burton, vice president of Stratfor, a global intelligence company. "It's almost like a mea culpa, because there's no way for them to spin this positively," Mr Burton said by telephone from the company's headquarters in Austin, Texas. "It's a diplomatic way of saying, 'Look out for our people', while recognising that they are agents of the SVR."
It was common for a captured Soviet illegal to have a back-up legend - a concocted biography cemented with a fake passport - in the event he was arrested by the government he'd been tasked with infiltrating, Mr Gordievsky said. "If the illegals were caught, they would honour the code and not admit they were spies," he said. "The might confess [using a false identity] and then bring in the second legend."
In one such case, a Soviet illegal named Vitaly Shlykov was arrested by Swiss authorities in 1983 and charged with spying against a third government on Swiss territory. Mr Shlykov has said in interviews in recent years that he was posing as a US citizen but that upon his arrest he presented himself to Swiss investigators as a Soviet citizen with the last name "Nikolayev". He never confessed to spying, but the admission of Soviet citizenship gave him crucial access to lawyers and officials from the Soviet Embassy that he would not have been available otherwise had he continued to maintain he was an American. Alexander Golts, an independent military and security expert based in Moscow, said the scandal that erupted this week is the only case he can recall of Russia claiming as citizens alleged illegals arrested by foreign government. The concession, Mr Golts said, is an attempt by Moscow to allow the suspects' fates to be determined at a political level, not in a US criminal court. "This could strengthen the suspects' position somewhat in this case," Mr Golts said.