IN THE DAYS of the Soviet Union, street maps of Moscow did not exist for most citizens, or they were deliberately misleading. In fact, the very best Moscow map was created by the CIA, and it was treasured by diplomats, journalists and spies. It was a spiral-bound wonder that could rescue you from almost any dead end.
Today, Russia is wired, and the Internet service Yandex provides a swell digital map of the city that you can navigate on a smartphone. Google Earth can zoom in on any street corner. All of which suggests that something else is afoot in the highly publicized arrest and expulsion as a spy of a U.S. Embassy employee in Moscow last week.
The Russian Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, said that Ryan C. Fogle was caught red-handed trying to recruit one of its officers, carrying cash, a letter, a compass, a map, sunglasses and two wigs. We don’t know what Mr. Fogle was doing, but the story sounds fishy. Back in the 1970s, perhaps, a CIA case officer would need a map, although he would not carry it on an operational run. A wig wasn’t unheard of, but the CIA’s disguises were far superior to that floppy blond thing Mr. Fogle was wearing. Besides, basic tradecraft would dictate that an officer not carry a spare wig in his backpack.
The way Mr. Fogle’s arrest was turned into a public spectacle suggests it was a setup by the Russian security service. Over the weekend, a Russian news agency, quoting an FSB officer, identified by name the CIA station chief in Moscow, a breach of long-standing protocol. Earlier this month, Russia detained for 16 hours an American lawyer who had been living in Moscow and then expelled him from the country; the lawyer, former Justice Department official Thomas Firestone, had turned down a Russian attempt to recruit him as a spy, the New York Times reported.
Running spies remains vital in today’s dangerous world. The stakes are obviously different than during the Cold War but still urgent, from counterterrorism and asymmetric warfare to the mind-set of mercurial leaders in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere.
In today’s Russia, though, President Vladimir Putin has been pretty open about his methods and goals, including his hostility to democracy and his crude anti-Americanism. The latest FSB stunts fit the pattern. One doesn’t need a compass to see the direction.
But the Obama administration seems determined not to take notice. The White House asks for intelligence cooperation; the Kremlin responds with insults and provocations. The White House portrays Mr. Putin as an essential peacemaker in Syria; he responds by shipping sophisticated missiles to dictator Bashar al-Assad. When it comes to understanding the Kremlin, what’s missing isn’t raw intelligence but the clear-eyed analysis of what is plain for all to see.