Staunton, July 11 – During the Cold War, officials in many Western capitals often remarked that “we send Moscow diplomats and the Russians treat them like spies, while Moscow sends us spies and we treat them like diplomats,” a reminder of the dangers inherent in either set of assumptions or alternatively in not making them.
Two events this week – the tit-for-tat fallout from a Russian attack on an American diplomat in Moscow and the assumption in Ukraine that the Kremlin is using an ostensibly religious procession in Ukraine as a cover for FSB penetration of that country – call attention to the return of this Cold War meme and its dangers.
Vladimir Putin’s suspiciousness, rooted in his KGB past, unfortunately means both that he views all Western diplomats as spies or worse and that he thus feels completely free to behave in that way with regard to others, confident that many in the West can be counted on to dismiss such charges as relics of Cold War thinking.
There are two dangers of such a revival. On the one hand, it increases the level of suspiciousness on both sides and thus makes much of the normal work of diplomats far more difficult. Indeed, it creates what can become a vicious circle of reinforcing assumptions that will go a long way to make things worse.
And on the other, as Putin understands but as many in the West do not, the fact that the West does not want to believe that Moscow is doing what it obviously is doing because the Kremlin claims otherwise gives Moscow a dangerous opening that can be ignored only at the peril of those who do.
As long as Putin or anyone else who thinks like him is in power in Moscow, the West has to avoid falling into either trap that the Russian authorities are all too willing to set. Not everyone the West might see as an agent is in fact one, but not everyone Moscow claims isn’t one is in fact something else.
That was never easy during the Cold War, and if anything it is more difficult now, not only because we have lost the discipline imposed by a common opposition to communism but also because we have sacrificed much of the kind of expertise any government needs to make these critical distinctions.
Putin’s commitment to “hybrid” activities – which is after all simply another term for saying one thing and doing another – means that those subject to his attacks must develop the kind of information gathering and analytic capacity needed to make those distinctions, lest his bad behavior spread as memes do to areas where it will do even more harm.