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Swapping Prisoners In The New Cold War

sign reading Station Glienicker Brucke in foreground, bridge in background
The Glienicke Bridge, connecting Berlin to Potsdam, was the site of several Cold War spy swaps, including the Powers-Abel exchange. Photo by Andreas Levers.

If you have any doubts that the Cold War has resumed, catch the film “Bridge of Spies” when it opens this weekend. And then consider the case of Eston Kohver, among others.

The new Steven Spielberg flick stars Tom Hanks as James Donovan, a lawyer who was central to the negotiations for the release of CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers. The movie dramatizes the true events leading to the prisoner swap in which the Soviet Union released Powers in exchange for the release of Vilyam Fisher, better known under his alias Rudolf Abel, who had been arrested by the FBI in 1957 and convicted on espionage charges that year.

Powers’ capture in 1960 was a massive embarrassment to the United States, in part because the U.S. denied the military nature of the flyover initially when it wasn’t clear that Powers had survived. Premier Nikita Khrushchev used the incident as grounds for insulting President Dwight Eisenhower at a scheduled peace summit in Paris between Soviet and Western leaders. Subsequently, Powers endured a show trial in Moscow, at which he was sentenced to three years in prison and an additional seven years in a forced labor camp.

Cold War politics meant that Soviet leaders declined to acknowledge that Abel was a Russian spy. As far as Moscow was concerned, Abel was an East German and releasing Powers would purely be an act of largesse meant to improve Soviet-American relations. Yet regardless of the public spin, in 1962 Powers and Abel walked across the titular bridge in Berlin, returning to their respective home nations. It was the first of many such exchanges over the following decades.

I wrote last year that it was clear in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea that the Cold War had returned. For those who doubted this at the time, the past year has offered plenty of supporting evidence.

At least in the earlier iteration of the Cold War, we swapped Russian spies for genuine Western ones, such as Powers. These days we have been reduced to giving Russia back its spies and saboteurs in exchange for nothing more than kidnapped hostages. Eston Kohver, an Estonian security official, was detained at the Russian border in 2014; a Russian court sentenced him to 15 years in prison after the FSB, the agency that serves as the KGB’s successor, claimed he was on a “spying operation” on Russian soil. Kohver maintained his innocence throughout, and Estonia and the European Union both insisted he had been abducted in Estonia. He was recently released when his government handed over an Estonian citizen previously convicted of treason for passing classified information to the FSB, according to The Wall Street Journal.

There is no reason whatsoever to believe the Russian claims that Kohver was on its territory when captured. But it doesn’t matter if the claims are believable; they succeeded in that the Russians exchanged an accused spy for the release of a real one.

Similarly, we have no reason to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, Russia’s story regarding the ongoing case of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko. Savchenko, who is charged with complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists, was on the ground in Ukraine but has somehow ended up on trial in Russia, which denies it has any of its personnel in its neighbor’s territory. Russian officials maintain that Savchenko was detained in Ukraine after the journalists’ death, released, and then sneaked over the Russian border to be rearrested.

This claim, like the other so-called evidence against Savchenko, is absurd to outside observers. But the intended audience is not bystanders reading about Savchenko’s treatment. A trial like hers is intended to show those living within the FSB’s reach how dissent is handled. Consider also the trial for the members of the band Pussy Riot in 2012. Savchenko will be represented by the same lawyer, Mark Feygin, who handled that case; unsurprisingly, Feygin himself has been questioned by Russia’s Investigative Committee, roughly the country’s equivalent of the FBI.

In fact, miscarriages of justice against Russian citizens have been going on for years, used by Moscow as tools of intimidation and control. What has changed more recently is the boldness with which citizens of other countries are seized, tried and convicted. In addition to strengthening the Kremlin’s propaganda initiatives, these trials have a secondary audience: governments holding Russian or Russian-affiliated spies. As Kohver’s case demonstrated, Russia doesn’t need to wait to capture a real spy. A falsely accused spy may work just as well.

The worst thing is not that we are back in a Cold War; it is that we are faring so poorly in it. Since my earlier post following Crimea’s annexation, we have seen Russia send anonymized soldiers into Ukraine to back its further efforts to establish a new puppet regime on its border, the kidnapping and show trials of Kohver and Savchenko, the initiation of Russian military action in Syria aimed at propping up Bashar Assad and, in the process, attacking his U.S.-backed opponents, and repeated violations of NATO airspace, most recently and ominously in Turkey along the Syrian border.

The Obama administration responds to all of these assaults with symbolic gestures and feeble protests, as though a mere hint of American displeasure would somehow alter Vladimir Putin’s course of action. He is doing very well in this new Cold War, and he knows it. The entire European alliance is on the verge of fracturing under the strain of a million or so refugees, many of whom were unleashed by Assad, the dictator who drops barrel bombs on his civilian population while his military now operates under a Russian air umbrella.

The Gary Powers story ended with a short-term embarrassment to the American side, but in the end, we won the Cold War. At least we thought we did. There is no guarantee of a happy Hollywood ending in the one that is currently being fought along NATO’s eastern frontier. No guarantee at all.

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