Of course, it is hard not to presume that there is a connection with Maria Butina’s case. She was charged neither with outright espionage nor simple unauthorized lobbying but under “espionage lite,” Section 951. This targets “agents of foreign governments,” defined as those who agree “to operate within the United States subject to the direction or control of a foreign government or official” — a very broad definition.
Tit-for-tat arrests with an eye for future prisoner swaps have long been part of Russian intelligence community practice. Spies, after all, have a strong code of getting their people back.
What is less usual, though, is Moscow’s relative reticence. Usually, within 24 hours, spook-friendly television channels would be showing footage of balaclava-masked FSB officers making the arrest. There would be photos of the flash drive Whelan was meant to have received. The Foreign Ministry would be issuing pious condemnations, and it would be the lead news item of the day.
And yet beyond a few routine statements, there has been surprisingly little media attention, especially in the heavyweight government newspapers. Although this is just speculation, in the past silence has denoted a behind-the-scenes disagreement within the government. The FSB is unlikely to have felt the need to canvas opinion across the government before making the arrest, and the two broad factions when it comes to Russia’s relationship with the West each have their own concerns.
One, let’s call it the “World Cup lobby,” wants to encourage tourism, interconnectedness, soft power. Against them is arrayed the “Pyongyang tendency” of those who prioritize security and isolation.
For the former, the case is a problem. They look to Russia’s reputation abroad, and the billions of rubles spent on such soft power ventures as Sochi 2014 and the 2018 World Cup wasted by even a few such incidents.
For the latter, it may be an opportunity. They look at the Kremlin’s reputation at home, and this consolidates their narrative of a hostile world seeking to undermine Russia’s global standing and domestic security.