The harassment of American diplomats by the Russian security services can be seen as part of a broader strategy for dealing with the U.S., which has its roots in the Soviet era.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John F. Tefft in his residence in Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti

Recently, numerous complaints have arrived from American diplomats working in Russia about persecution, intimidation, interference in their private lives and even physical violence by agents of the Russian security services. 

According to reports, in early June, a Federal Security Service (FSB) officer engaged in an actual fight with an American diplomat near the U.S. embassy. As a result, the American’s shoulder was broken and he had to leave Russia in a hurry “for the purpose of receiving medical treatment,” as the official comment read.

U.S. State Department representatives have repeatedly provided journalists other examples of Russia’s interference in the work of American diplomats. The diplomats are being shadowed, their residences are covertly broken into and they are set on by hostile youth activists.

Russia’s absorption of Crimea in 2014 and the ensuing sanctions were a catalyst for the escalation of the conflict between the secret services of the United States and Russia, but many American diplomats point out that they felt a deterioration in their working conditions in Russia much earlier, right after Vladimir Putin’s third term as president began in 2012.

Of course, the FSB’s actions can be explained in one way or another in every case: The American diplomat with the broken shoulder was an exposed spy who was returning from a mission and fighting his way onto the embassy premises; the American ambassador who was followed by some mysterious strangers or activists from pro-Kremlin youth organizations was being punished for “interference in Russia’s internal affairs” inappropriate for a diplomat.

However, the frequency and specific character of the episodes indicates that they are more than mere coincidences.

In response to the accusations of harassment of American diplomats, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, claimed that the Russian diplomats in Washington are also exposed to unprecedented pressure and, given the sanctions against Russia, U.S. representatives could hardly expect a friendlier attitude.

Thus, even at the level of official comments, it has been indirectly admitted that those were not just isolated security service operations against some explicitly identified “enemies of the state,” but rather a purposeful campaign to put pressure on the American diplomatic corps as a whole. In some ways, today’s pressure is even more evident than what American diplomats faced in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

In contrast to the Cold War period, today’s Russian-American relations are more asymmetric. Among the officers of the Russian security services, negative emotions towards the U.S. have already reached an unbelievably high pitch and are spilling out in the form of various “special operations,” while the American side is still capable of restraining itself from using the tactics of a back alley fight.

Of course, this asymmetry is primarily due to the imbalance of power. Russia lags behind the United States on a number of indicators; it cannot count on any economic victories and lacks influential allies, so it uses the resources it has available.

Creating a hostile atmosphere for American diplomats fits in with the methods of “hybrid war” with which Russia has had more success in recent years than anything else.

Also read: "Through the lens of history: When Russia and the US were allies"

Covert penetration of American diplomats’ residences or shadowing of family members can be included in the same category as the dangerous maneuvers of Russian military aircraft in close proximity to American ships or attacks by Russian hackers on American electronic servers. In all these cases, the Russian authorities took the opportunity to rattle the Americans, causing the U.S. to act inconsiderately and spend money on enhanced security measures, without expending many resources itself.

These tactics are not unlike a guerilla war, and a considerable part of modern Russian society sees them as an adequate response to the United States and its perceived offensive behavior towards Russia in the international arena.

Deeply rooted in the collective psychology of many Russians, especially those who are connected to the armed forces or security services, is the Cold War spirit of competition in relation to the United States. Old habits die hard, and the long-standing perception of the United States as the Soviet Union’s predominant enemy has been passed down intact from older generations of officers to newer recruits.

As a result, we face an interesting phenomenon: the leaders of the Russian security services and armed forces are guided by the same principles that defined the behavior of their fathers and grandfathers during the era when the Soviet Union and the United States were considered superpowers of equal strength — even though the actual balance of power between Russia and the U.S. has changed dramatically. Because FSB and Russian army officers still perceive the situation as one of absolute status parity they are justified in carrying out with unmitigated enthusiasm the competition started by their fathers and grandfathers, even if the guerilla methods of a hybrid war have to be used today.

In today’s Russia, the so-called "siloviki," the former and current officers of the security services and armed forces, has turned into a real ruling class. Their ideological attitudes find support among a considerable part of the population, partly due to the efforts by Kremlin propagandists, and partly because those attitudes match the traditional Russian state-centric world outlook.

Of course, it spells catastrophe for Russian-American relations. Even if a Russian or American president, today or in the future, were to decide all of a sudden that their countries would benefit from a complete normalization of relations, they will not be able to change the collective Russian psychology oriented at an endless conflict and the desire to “reach and overtake America.”

For that reason, as long as the siloviki in Russia retain a definitive political influence, any substantial improvement in Russian-American relations will be out of the question.

As for the American diplomats, they should prepare themselves for the reality of this hybrid warfare. It is unreasonable to expect that the Russian side will respond to the complaints by taking measures to normalize the situation. More likely, the complaints will be seen as a success by the perpetrators — as evidence that the adopted method of psychological pressure works and has the necessary effect.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.