Foreign Policy Digital

America Will Always Lose Russia’s Tit-for-Tat Spy Games

In the asymmetric warfare of espionage, playing fair means Moscow wins.

A recent BuzzFeed article outlined behind-the-scenes efforts by Russian and American diplomats to end the tit-for-tat expulsion of embassy personnel between the two sides. Reports say American officials are reacting positively to Moscow’s signals to end the feud and are looking to “turn the page” and improve relations.

While nobody should be against efforts to improve relations, let’s not fool ourselves as to who came out ahead in this contest. “Ending the feud” is exactly what the Russians want — because they won. The United States lost far more from the expulsions than Russia, and, worse, it acceded to a long-sought-after and long-rejected Russian demand that all interactions conform to the practice of parity. In fact, there’s a pattern that I observed during my years in the CIA: In 2016 — as in 2001, 1994, and 1986 — the United States tried to punish Russia but mishandled the effort, eventually cried uncle, and left Russia in a better position than when it started.

Let’s recap the most recent effort to “punish” Russia.

As we now know, Russia utilized a multipronged attack it the “crime of the century,” and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner described his efforts to uncover the attack as “very well … the most important thing I do in my public life.”

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