A gate outside the Russian embassy in London. The British government says Russian intelligence poisoned a former spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in southern England. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

The poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in southern England, most likely by Russian intelligence agents, highlights the role of espionage in Russia’s relations with the West. Skripal had been a double agent for the British from the 1990s until he was arrested by Russian security forces in 2004. Britain got him back in a spy swap in 2010. Espionage often generates misconceptions — by virtue of its secrecy.

Myth No. 1
Espionage increases tensions between hostile states.

Media coverage implies, and some researchers believe, that international relationships rise and fall based on spy scandals. Siobhan Martin of the Geneva Center for Security Policy published a study in 2016 arguing that the inherently secret nature of espionage is apt to cause problems: “The Cold War effectively became a ‘spy war’ between US and Soviet intelligence agencies and those of their allies,” she wrote. The Guardian says the Skripal poisoning “has sent UK-Russia relations tumbling.”

 But espionage is ubiquitous, and all governments are aware that their opponents — and even their friends and allies — are spying on them. Only rarely do acts of espionage lead to significant tension between states. Even when a spy scandal leads a government to expel another’s diplomats and embassy staff, the furor usually subsides quickly, and staffing levels are restored.

Espionage has often helped to prevent or reduce tension. During the Cold War, Soviet and East German intelligence agencies recruited large numbers of spies at NATO headquarters and in the West German government. From them, Soviet leaders learned that U.S. and NATO military forces were not gearing up for an attack. Technical means of intelligence-gathering provided further reassurance. The United States and the Soviet Union deployed elaborate systems — including reconnaissance satellites, electronic interceptors and naval eavesdropping devices — to find out what the other was doing with its military, especially its nuclear arsenal. This gave leaders on both sides confidence that the other was not about to launch a surprise nuclear attack.

Myth No. 2
This assassination attempt will make Russia a pariah.

After the attack on Skripal, newspaper headlines in Britain and Ireland proclaimed that “Russia has made itself a pariah” and urged an international boycott of this year’s FIFA World Cup, which Russia will be hosting. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called for “all responsible nations” to take strong action against “the Kremlin’s reckless defiance of essential international rules,” and British Prime Minister Theresa May joined French President Emmanuel Macron in pledging to “act in concert with allies” to make Russia pay a price. May reported that President Trump had told her he would be “with the UK all the way” in seeking to hold Russia accountable.

But previous Russian attacks in Britain have not had significant consequences for the Kremlin. After Alexander Litvinenko was killed in London in 2006 by two Russian operatives who poisoned his tea with polonium-210, the British government imposed sanctions, but almost no other government did. Shortly after Litvinenko died, Germany reaffirmed its lavish energy deals with Russian state-owned companies, hardly a way to express disapproval of brazen murder.

The Soviet regime during the Cold War assassinated its opponents living abroad, including in London, Munich, New York and Washington, with relative impunity. The Russian government over the past two decades has been able to do much the same. May’s hopes of lasting Western efforts to isolate Russia seem unlikely to be fulfilled. 

Myth No. 3
Spies betray their country mostly for money.

In a 2008 interview with Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker, Mike McConnell, then director of national intelligence, argued that nearly all U.S. intelligence personnel who have become spies for hostile powers have done so for the money: “Look back at all the spies we’ve had in our history. . . . About a hundred and thirty. How many did it for money? A hundred and twenty-eight.” McConnell’s claims were in line with what Fox News called “the conventional wisdom in intelligence circles, which for years has held that money is by far the most important motivator for spies.”

That “wisdom,” though, is not borne out by the historical record. Nearly all the U.S. officials who became spies for the Soviet Union during the Stalin era did so for ideological reasons. Many did not even get paid. The only U.S. official for whom money was the chief motivation for aiding Stalin was Rep. Samuel Dickstein (D-N.Y.), whose avarice was so great that his Soviet handlers gave him the cover name “Crook.”

After Stalin, money became a more frequent motivation for U.S. intelligence double agents, as with Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen . But even then, ideology was still a common driver, especially for those who went to work for Cuba, East Germany or China. Disgruntlement and a desire for revenge spurred numerous others to become spies, such as CIA officer Edward Lee Howard , whose anger at being passed over for a foreign posting induced him to help the KGB and ultimately defect to the Soviet Union. Many others, such as Marine guard Clayton Lonetree , stationed at the Moscow embassy, were blackmailed or coerced into spying, having been entrapped by sexual encounters of various sorts. In the post-Cold War era, money has been even less significant. One authoritative study found it was a factor in only 28 percent of the known cases of Americans who spied for foreign countries from 1990 through 2015.

Myth No. 4
Concerns about Soviet spies in the 1940s were overblown.

Victor Navasky, longtime editor of the Nation, has argued that efforts to uncover Soviet spies in the late 1940s were misguided and ensnared innocent people. He links the FBI’s counterintelligence investigations of the 1940s with Sen. Joe McCarthy’s demagogic vendettas of the 1950s, implying that the former led to the latter. The journalist Jeff Kisseloff and the novelist Joan Brady have argued that Alger Hiss and other accused spies were “framed ” and “railroaded” in what Brady described as “the biggest and longest-lasting cover-up in history.” 

These views have been contravened by overwhelming amounts of documentation. U.S. decryptions of Soviet foreign intelligence cables from the 1940s (released in the mid-’90s) and declassified materials from the former Soviet intelligence archives reveal that hundreds of U.S. citizens, including some high-ranking officials like Hiss, who had been a senior State Department aide, worked for Stalin’s intelligence agencies.

When the FBI began breaking up Soviet spy networks in the United States after World War II, the scale of Soviet espionage was not yet understood. Only many years later could U.S. officials truly see how large the spy rings had been. If President Harry Truman had known the full extent of the betrayals, the backlash in the United States would have been harsher.

Myth No. 5
Espionage mostly aims to sway the policies of hostile powers.

A surprisingly common misconception about spies is that they set out to change policy in the countries where they operate. A book published in 2013 , for example, alleged that Stalin’s spies in the 1940s had effectively “occupied” the United States and guided the policies of the Roosevelt administration.

But the dominant purpose of intelligence agencies is to gather information about foreign countries, especially hostile ones. The intelligence services of the major powers also engage in covert operations, subversion, and the spreading of propaganda and disinformation, but the largest share by far of their personnel and resources goes toward the collection of secret information through human and technical espionage and the subsequent analysis of that information.

This was just as true of the Soviet Union in the 1930s and ’40s as it is of the United States today. Declassified Soviet intelligence documents confirm that the chief task of the hundreds of Americans who were recruited by Stalin’s intelligence agencies was to obtain secret information and pass it on to Moscow. Influencing policy was rarely, if ever, their main goal — indeed, it was discouraged if it would raise red flags and thereby endanger access to classified materials.

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