August 10, 2010: The Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin recently praised the ten Russian spies who had been discovered earlier this year in the United States, and exchanged for four spies in Russian prisons. Until this recent praise from Putin, it was uncertain how Russia would react to what was actually an espionage debacle. Now we know that Russia will stand by, and look after, its ten inept spies.
This ineptitude is in sharp contrast to the Cold War (1945-91), where the Soviet Union had a much larger number of spies, and much better ones at that. Russia used to be the premier trainer of all types of spies. The ten Russian spies caught in the United States are called, in the trade, "illegals." This is because the most important spies usually have official jobs at the embassy, and thus are protected ("legal") by diplomatic immunity. During the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia restricted how many diplomatic personnel they allowed the other side to have. This is a normal part of establishing diplomatic relations, determining how many diplomatic personnel will be "recognized" (as immune to arrest, for any crime). All you can do with unwanted diplomatic personnel is to order them to leave the country, and this is usually done when "legal" spies are caught.
"Illegals" are spies who do not have diplomatic immunity, and can be imprisoned, or even executed, if caught. Most countries use a lot of diplomatic personnel, without diplomatic immunity, for this job. But the most important illegals were those who were living in a foreign country pretending to be locals, or migrants from some friendly nation. The Russians were very good at creating convincing "legends" (fake identities and back stories) for their illegals. During the Cold War, the Russians were so good that they were rumored to have special boarding schools where promising Russian children were sent to learn how to speak and act like an American (or German, or Briton or Brazilian or whatever). This was mostly fantasy, but there were schools that taught the customs of foreign nations, and language institutes where illegals could have their accent tweaked to eliminate all trace of its Russian origin.
Russia would also recruit spies in third countries, and train them to be illegals in another nation, like the United States (where there were always a lot of migrants.) All these illegals were employees of the KGB (the Russian CIA/FBI), had KGB ranks, and, if they stayed alive and were successful, would eventually retire to a comfortable life on their KGB pension. Many did so, although dozens were caught and served long jail terms. A few were exchanged for U.S. spies in Russian jails. Some illegals switched sides, and had to worry about KGB death squads until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
All those KGB schools, and most of the world class KGB expertise, disappeared with the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The ten illegals caught in the United States this year were strictly amateurs, although they had some training and were employees of the FSB (the much smaller Russian successor to the KGB). But their language and cultural training were not up to KGB Cold War standards. Neither were their espionage skills. All ten were quickly detected and put under surveillance by the American FBI, which hoped to learn as much as possible about how the FSB operated, before rounding the illegals up. This crew were arrested when one of them apparently began suspecting that they were being watched, and reported this back to Russia. The FBI was indeed watching, and managed to arrest ten of the eleven Russian illegals they were monitoring. The eleventh spy may have been a double agent, as the Russians have said little about him.
The FBI, obviously, is not releasing many details of this case, because they are likely other Russian illegals being watched. Some of these may not been confirmed as illegals, or may have been called back to Russia. Details on that sort of thing will be revealed in the future. Needless to say, all this espionage continues, much as it did when the Soviet Union collapsed. During the 1990s, a lot of suddenly (or potentially) unemployed KGB personnel (including legals, and officials back in Russia), offered to sell information to the CIA and FBI. Many of these deals were consummated, and Russia's formidable Cold War espionage network took a lot of damage in the 1990s. But in the last decade, Russia has been rebuilding. But it won't be the same. Now that we know how extensive the KGB espionage network was (due to all those 1990s turncoats), it's unlikely anyone else will have the resources, or ignorance in the West, to pull it off.