What the Russia Spy Swap Tells Us About Russia (Originally published by Joshua Tucker on The Monkey Cage) The final chapter in the recent Russia spy scandal seems to have been written remarkably quickly: shortly after being arrested, the accused Russian agents are being expelled from the country as part of a prisoner exchange with Russia. As per the usual, the American media will undoubtedly focus on the political implications of the exchange for the Obama adminstration. But there is a potentially more interesting story here about what the very existence of the Russian agents reveals about the way Russia’s leaders think about political power. Crucially, none of the the Russia “agents” were charged with espionage, because apparently none had any US state secrets in their possession. There are two potential ways to interpret this. On the one hand, it may be that the agents collectively were fairly incompetent and accomplished little during their 10 years of surveillance. (Although, it should be noted that the job of “sleeper agents” is usually not to start collecting classified information early on in their placement, as the entire point of of a sleeper agent is not to attract attention as he or she blends into the society in which he or she has been inserted.) More intriguing, however, is the observation that these “sleeper agents” were essentially placed in US society in positions where they were thought to have access to US elites. It may very well have been assumed – probably falsely now in retrospect – that simply being in the same social and professional circles as American elites would eventually lead to the accural of valuable information, without the need to go out and procure (steal) specific types of information. Why is this interesting? Because it probably tells us something about the nature of politics in Russia, where contacts with the right people in the right positions – or, perhaps even more importantly, in the right networks – is indeed the key to power and access, and, perhaps, ultimately important information. It is also worth noting how quickly the whole question of the scandal seems to have been resolved. Say what you will about the Obama administration’s reset with Russia, but the speed with which this potentially troublesome event for US-Russian relations was addressed was certainly unexpected.