The Lords Of The Ring

Here is an old Russian joke about a man who went on trial for making illegal (or "unlawful", as it's fashionable to say these days) alcohol. 

For those unfamiliar with the subject, a short primer.  Home-making of a strong spirit (samogon) is one of the favorite Russian pastimes.  For this purpose, many households, especially in the countryside, possess distilling apparatuses commonly known as "devices" (pribor).  Making samogon used to be (I'm not sure about now) illegal, so a person caught with having a "device" could formally be prosecuted — although in real life, this wasn't enforced, except for the times of Mikhail Gorbachev's famous "anti-alcoholic" campaign. 

So the joke goes like that: a man is caught with possessing a "device."  He's arrested and brought to trial.  The presiding judge asks him:

Did you make samogon?

The man replies:

No, I didn't.

The judge is surprised:

But you've got a device. 

The man agrees:

Yes, I've got a device.

The judge insists:

So, you made samogon, didn't you?

The man:

No, I didn't.

They go back and forth like that for a while, and then the judge frustrated with the stupidity of the defendant sentences him to a prison term.  The guards take the man away from the chamber.  Passing  by the judge, the man says:

Well, then charge me with a rape too.

The judge is astonished:

Why, did you rape someone?

The man:

No, I didn't.  But I've got a device. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the Magnificent Eleven representing the Russian Spy Ring had all the means, all the devices, to damage our national security.  

The most obvious case is the Mata-Hari-of-Manhattan, Anna Chapman (a woman "with a head for business…and a bod for sin") whose photos published by her pathetic former British husband betray the danger she'd pose if allowed to penetrate our sexually conducive political establishment (from Bill Clinton to Eliot Spitzer, to Mark Sanford, to John Ensign, to — oh, no! — Al Gore). 

In the spirit of fairness to Ms. Chapman, one must acknowledge that her images may have saved if not lives, but at least the souls of a few proud Marines.  For, according to the Washington Post,

"U.S. Marines preparing for shore leave in the Seychelles islands were having a standard security briefing this week when they were shown photos of…Anna Chapman…[to] tell the youngsters to beware of the beauties in foreign countries." 

A couple of questions immediately come to mind.  Has Ms. Chapman or her agent…sorry, I meant, her lawyer…authorized using these photos, regardless of the honorable goal of the briefing?  Is she entitled to collect royalty payments from U.S. government? 

(I suspect that the news of a plea bargain and a "spy swap" which sent Ms. Chapman to Moscow – and deprived her of a fair trial in the U.S. – produced a collective sigh of relief within the DOJ.  Not only because allegations against Ms. Chapman have always been flimsy.  But, given her media exposure, how was the prosecution going to find twelve impartial jurors in New York City?  Or elsewhere in the United States?  Or anywhere in the world, for that matter?)  

The Ring had a "youngster" of its own, a capable Mikhail Semenko who reportedly spoke five languages.  In our country where an average citizen would speak one-language-and-a-half, this is unusual and might be suspicious in itself.  The addition of Mr. Semenko's penchant for "foreign policy analysis" and "surreptitious global travel" would automatically create a powerful device allowing Mr. Semenko to become, one day, a modern-time Rudolf Abel

Well equipped was also Mikhail Vasenkov (Juan Lazaro) whose devices included his wife Vicky Pelaez who had traveled to Peru to meet with the "Moscow Center" handlers.  Am I right to assume that Peru is the only place in the Western hemisphere where members of the Ring could meet their Russian handlers without being watched by the FBI?     

And yet, everyone admits that none of the members of the Ring had ever obtained or passed on classified or otherwise-sensitive U.S. information.  So glaring is the gap between the potency of their devices and the lack of any real results that one can't help but to agree with Washington Post's Anne Applebaum posing this simple question: 

"Why on earth would the Russian government spend years of its time and millions of its dollars on the education, upkeep and housing of a spy who might someday be able to collect some rumors…?"

Now, I don't pay taxes to the Russian government and I'm therefore reluctant to discuss how it spends/wastes them.  But I pay taxes to the U.S. government and I do care about how our law enforcement agencies spend mine.  So let me paraphrase Applebaum's question:

"Why on earth would the FBI spend years of its time and millions of its dollars on watching "agents" who never came even close to obtaining our national secrets?    

Why weren't they arrested and deported (or swapped) after the FBI discovered that they were "unauthorized foreign agents"?  What was so attractive about the Ring for the FBI to watch it for almost a decade? 

One might argue, of course, that the Ring has been a low-maintenance project, and that its members made it very easy for the FBI to deal with them.  Take a look, for example, at Vasenkov/Lazaro who reportedly talked to himself (in his FBI-bugged home in Yonkers) "as he composed a long message to his…bosses in Moscow."  (And when arrested by the FBI, conveniently waived his Miranda rights.)  Or take the above mentioned Mikhail Semenko who, according to the prosecution, met in June with a "federal undercover agent posing as a Russian intelligence handler" and helpfully informed the latter that he, Mikhail Semenko "had been trained by Russian intelligence to use clandestine communication technology."  And what about Richard and Cynthia Murphy (a.k.a. Vladimir and Lydia Guryev) who had a habit of leaving secret passwords written on a piece of paper in their  Hoboken, N.J., home?  Isn't it nice to work with such accommodating "spies"? 

And then, there was Christopher Metsos, the alleged coordinator of the Ring.  He was arrested by authorities in Cyprus, but conveniently "disappeared" within 24 hours of being bailed.  With Ms. Metsos in U.S. custody, the pressure would have been on the prosecution to keep him under arrest while extracting proof of the Ring's "unlawful activities."  But with the Ring coordinator gone, who would object to swapping away a bunch of "ordinary" spies?

(From purely academic point of view, it'd still be nice to have the following questions answered.  Were the U.S. law-enforcement officials in contact with Cyprus authorities regarding Mr. Metsos' whereabouts?  Did they try to prevent his bail?  Did they follow his movements in Cyprus after the court appearance?  After all, we know that if U.S. secret agents believe that the national security is at stake, they can act more decisively even in a foreign sovereign country.  Apparently, they didn't feel the same urgency this time around.)

And then, there were omnipresent "federal undercover agents posing as Russian intelligence handlers" who were always at hand when the FBI had problems with collecting incriminating data.  I already mentioned a meeting between such an agent and Mikhail Semenko during which the latter presented to the former his spying bona fides.  (Why would Mr. Semenko divulge the information that was much more valuable for the FBI than for SVR?).  During another meeting with "an undercover FBI agent posing as a Russian agent"  (the same or different?), Mr Semenko was given "a folded newspaper wrapped around an envelope containing $5,000" and instructed "to drop it in an Arlington park."  What a brilliant undercover operation!  Just let me make it clear: whose budget, FBI's or SVR's, did this money come from?   

Anna Chapman has had her own share of meetings with undercover FBI agents posing as Russian officials.  One agent "…known as "UC-1"…arranged a meeting with Chapman to help her with technical difficulties that Chapman was experiencing with her laptop."   Another (or perhaps the same?) told her to buy a disposable cell phone and "to meet another spy the next day." 

As busy as they were with meeting fake Russian handlers, have Semenko and Chapman ever had a chance of speaking to real ones?  For, it appears that this Ring had two Lords, and it's not clear which one owned it more.

Washington Post's Walter Pincus provided a simple explanation of why the FBI let the Ring roll unbroken for so long:

"…[t]he investigation into the 11 alleged foreign agents appears to have been a case study in counterintelligence…In the Russian spy case, the counterintelligence gains could have included…knowledge of Russian espionage techniques and practices that could be employed in counterintelligence activities elsewhere in the world."

Now I get it.  The FBI actually has been using the Ring for educational purposes.  This is smart.  Besides, everyone knows that education costs money.  (I only hope that when the FBI almost let the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, slip out of the country, this happened not because the agents were busy with watching a video of Anna Chapman sipping coffee in a coffee shop in Manhattan).

The Lord-Ring relationship unfolding before our eyes reminded me of my late cat Marsik.  A vivid hunter, he used to catch mice in the fall and bring them alive to our basement.  During the following winter months, he would take them, one by one, upstairs to play with and then deliver their dead bodies to our bedroom.  Just to show us that he was still in catching shape.

And here we have Michelle Van Cleave, former national counterintelligence executive, warning us, on the pages of the WSJ,  that "[t]his case is a wake up call to the public and the national-security leadership that old threats are still with us."

Refuse to wake up?  Then read on:

"Ms. Van Cleave said that over the past five years, counterintelligence budgets and personnel have been cut and spy-chasing capabilities have been diminished within the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the office of the Director of National Intelligence and other agencies. Meanwhile, U.S. adversaries have expanded espionage operations against the U.S."

Budgets?  Personnel?  "You're getting warmer!", as they say in a popular children game.

I already told what I think about the timing of this "spy scandal", and I'm still convinced that it was a deliberate attempt to erase recent gains in U.S.-Russia relations.  However, the very speed with which the spy swap has been arranged is a surprising testament to just how far these relations have actually progressed.  (And a proof that even Russian bureaucracy can move fast in case of emergency).  Add here a visible desire, both in Washington and Moscow, to leave the whole story behind and to move on, and one gets an impression that there is more trust in the relationship than many anticipated.  If so, one can hope that the few days of the Cold War chill that we've just lived through will boost what they were supposed to bust.

The Lords vowed Reset and exchanged Rings. 

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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12 Responses to The Lords Of The Ring

  1. Alex says:

    Very well written, Eugene. cit :” there is more trust in the relationship than many anticipated” – may I say that *much* more. Including the departments, between which the trust had never been noticed before 🙂 Cheers

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mike,
    It’s nice to see that Feifer has left NPR for RFE/RL, where he truly belongs.
    As for the connection between spying and business, I feel that Feifer has originally written an article about Gazprom, but then the spy story broke, and he decided to spice it up a bit. Spies sell.

  3. Hi back Eugene,
    While seeing differences in overall degree between RFE/RL and NPR, the latter periodically leaves something to be desired.
    Your hunch on what GF might’ve originally intended to do makes sense.

  4. Juliya says:

    I read about the availability of the device in each pulp and further did not read. Because the entry is enough to recognize this story funny.
    Dear author. Come to Russia and see what these instruments for alcohol is not present in the homes of Russian. Even in rural areas it is not a tradition. However, it is possible to prepare such a national alcoholic beverage, as home-brewed beer (braga. brashka), or mead (medovuha), or home-made wine, and absolutely without any adaptations.
    But if this is convenient for you, if you need to support stereotypes, please.
    I went to drink vodka, take a walk with the bear, wash cap with ears and, perhaps, to play the balalaika at bedtime.
    Bad article, the author, mediocre.
    Sorry for my bad English, I helped an electronic translator.

  5. Alex says:

    Eugene – I actually fed this whole web page into Babel Fish – я весь хохотался, как говорит один мой друг.
    А Вам, Юлия – строгий выговор с занесением в личное дело – Вы запороли глубоко закоспирированную явку!!!

  6. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Alex,
    “Kremlin should ask Feifer to provide Russia with a draft of Russia’s (active) foreign policy.”
    David Kramer has already provided one, however unsolicited…
    The fact that “Julia” works for the KGB doesn’t suprise me: recent events have showed that brains are dispensable for the coming generation of Russian secret agents. However, the fact that after “Julia” we now have “Julia1” is somewhat troubling. If they keep cloning like that, I’ll have to trip their growth.

  7. Alex says:

    Actually, Mike, I was thinking the same .. it is a small world, after all. And it is not inconceivable for someone to try to demonstrate “how it feels” when one gets thrashed for one small inconsequential slip of the tongue in a good post on an unrelated (to the thrashing) topic. But I don’t think that a native speaker would ever spell her own name this way. So it may indeed be a genuine case of an impatient patriotism. Cheers

  8. Alex says:

    Yes, Mike, the True Slant, for example.
    The depth of some comments to the Russian version is simply fascinating, particularly about самогон. How shall we call the effect – a “recoil”? :)) For so many years the only imbeciles I saw around were of Anglo-Saxon breed & what they call “scientists”, now I see my mistake..
    But someone correctly remarked – it was “аппарат” а не “прибор”. Cheers

  9. Alex
    Learned long ago that intelligence and idiocy is to be found among all groups, be it race or social strata.

  10. Alex says:

    Алекс – Юлии (копия Центру)
    (записку проглотить и усвоить немедленно)
    Поскольку в Росссии мораторий на высшую меру наказания, Центр не будет Вас лишать Вашей рюмки водки. Но в качестве отдолжения, просит прочитать ВЕСЬ текст автора которого Вы здесь критикуете – можно в переводе на русский –
    и затем сообщить нам свое мнение об отношении автора к русским еще раз. Возможно Вы заинтересуетесь его биографией – In English, from the link on this blog
    Центр уверен что сделав все это – Вы захотите извиниться и сказать Евгению “спасибо”

  11. Juliya1 says:

    Упс…исправляю ошиПки
    Не пробовалиБражка – это не пивоожалею.
    читать как Не пробовали? Сожалею.

  12. JuliyaDV says:

    Ага, читала-читала. Даже спустилась вниз странички почитать комментарии.
    >Автор сдобрил текст российскими идиомами, на что он имеет право хотя бы в силу своего происхождения.
    Право писать брехню, простите за выражение? Да и еще свято верить в это?(я не сейчас не о сути статьи, а об вступлении – это единственное, что не относится к действительности, остальное видение автора)
    >Ваша обостренная реакция только подтверждает, что очень многие стереотипы относительно русских не лишены оснований.
    Обостренная? ну что Вы! Я нахожу это забавным, читать вот такое…здесь об излюбленном занятии – гнать самогон. Обожаю это дело! Среди все одинаковых статей на тему России (в части стереотипов-реалий) эта просто отличилась своей неповторимостью! За что респект автору – позабавил))) И не надо обижаться на это.
    >Читать такие комментарии обидно, так как складывается впечатление, что жители РФ не желают смотреть дальше своего носа и во всем выискивают повод лишний раз оскорбиться.
    Пока оскорбились только Вы. Меня это не оскорбляет и откровенно говоря борьба со стереотипами – это борьба с ветрянными мельницами.
    >Хотите донести миру правду о России? Заведите блог!
    Глупость, зачем мне нести миру правду, если она ему не нужна.
    >Либо переводите “бражка” как ale, либо не переводите совсем (brajka)
    Еще раз. Так перевел электронный переводчик. Самостоятельно мне трудно “разговаривать” на английском, поскольку не могу выражать свои мысли ясно настолько, настолько позволяет мне родной язык.
    >и сделайте вид, что это уникальное достижение нашего народа.
    Хотели задеть? Не получилось.
    >Дальний Восток – это тоже не вся Россия
    Я б сказала, что это другая Россия. И мне это нравится. Западная модель бытия и ценностей мне отвратительна. Но это уже другая история.
    С уважением.

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