Wigged Out: Another Peculiar Taste in Russia-U.S Relations

By Alex Schulman

The bizarre Ryan Fogle spy scandal, the latest thorn in an already strained U.S.-Russian relationship, characterizes unresolved ideological misunderstandings present in bilateral relations since the end of the Cold War. Whether Fogle is indeed guilty of accusations of recruiting a Russian agent for the CIA remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that this case comes at an extremely critical time in the bilateral relationship – four weeks before Obama and Putin plan to meet in Northern Ireland for the G8 Summit and one month after National Security Advisor Donilon’s visit to Moscow. The abundant absurdities surrounding this scandal are indicative, not only of popular Russian attitudes concerning U.S. involvement in domestic affairs, but more importantly, of an increasing “culture of paranoia” enveloping the Russian political sphere. Deciphering the underlying political nature of the Fogle scandal, however, requires a brief look at the past.  

Many pundits argue that current difficulties in the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship are largely the consequence of misunderstandings concerning the nature of the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Jack Matlock, former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991, argues that popular Russian mistrust and suspicion toward U.S. political motives results, partially, from the notion that the Soviet Union broke up because of U.S. influence and interference in Russian domestic affairs. Conversely, popular American opinion holds that internal issues, many of them stemming from Gorbachev’s infamous domestic reforms, were largely to blame for the USSR’s fall from communism. The decline of communism in the USSR, however, is the result of many factors; both U.S. and Russian positions misrepresent the complexity of the situation. The true nature of the downfall is, in many ways, inconsequential—the debate concerning responsibility for the USSR’s demise remains an unresolved, bitter area of contention.

From the Russian perspective, the past 20-years of mixed U.S. post-Soviet policies appear to denigrate, isolate and humiliate Russia. A critical component to this viewpoint is distain for perceived U.S. involvement in Russian domestic policies, which Russians often interpret as directly motivated attempts to promote a U.S. version of democracy. As domestic politics usually undermine international policies in Russia, this creates a particularly volatile situation. Russian leaders have historically used “threat from abroad” rhetoric to their advantage, gaining both political legitimacy and popular support. 

As a result, emotional reactions to perceived international threats have become a fundamental aspect of the Russian political response.

In this context, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s allegations against Fogle, though largely unsubstantiated, strike a sensitive chord and therefore, appear to be less puerile than at first glance. Nevertheless, a significant component underlying tensions in the bilateral relationship obscures recent Russian allegations.

It is impossible to discuss Russian accusations against U.S. intentions in Russian domestic politics without addressing the crumbling state of Russian domestic affairs. Post-Soviet Russia is plagued by enormous corruption and inequality—largely the result of an oligarchical distribution of wealth following the downfall of communism. To distract Russians from domestic issues and quell internal dissent, President Putin increasingly uses domestic politics to his advantage, even when contrary to Russian interests. By presenting U.S. policies as inherently contrary to Russian security, Putin has effectively created a “culture of paranoia” in both civil society and the political sphere. 

In late 2011, popular dissatisfaction came to a head resulting in mass protests during the Russian presidential campaign. Putin repeatedly has blamed the U.S. for fomenting discontent with his government, with officials going so far as to accuse the State Department of funding opposition protesters. In a CFR interview entitled “Repairing U.S.-Russia Relations,” Ambassador Matlock directly addresses this issue, stating:

"I don’t think U.S. influence had much to do with the domestic opposition to Putin. His actions may have been driven by a mindset that the United States was out to bring him down, to bring Russia down, to impinge upon what he considers Russia’s natural sphere of influence."

Thus far, Putin has refrained from commenting on the Fogle incident. Russian state news channels, however, have not refrained from repeatedly showing footage of Fogle, in an incongruous-looking blond wig being pinned to the ground by a Russian undercover agent in a “sting” operation. From the U.S. perspective, the peculiar images, though likely meant to embarrass, resonate as disingenuous.

Perhaps the Fogle scandal will prove true. A similarly bizarre incidence, dubbed the 2006 “spy rock” scandal verified strange Russian accusations against British spies using a fake rock able to transmit classified data. It is also possible that the latest scandal exemplifies efforts to boost Putin’s domestic ratings in an increasingly unstable social and political climate. What is certain is that the Fogle case, even if downplayed by U.S. and Russian officials, exemplifies deep, unresolved issues in the bilateral relationship. The emotional intensity underlying current difficulties will continue to sour an increasingly acrid relationship.  

Alex Schulman is an intern for EastWest Institute’s Communications Department.