Vladimir Putin
Credit: iStock

I once got into a drag race with a KGB agent. It was during the Cold War, as the clock was ticking down on the Soviet empire. As a junior diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Stalinist-run Laos in the ‘80s, I was regularly surveilled, harassed, propositioned and even once arrested at gunpoint and jailed, resulting in a diplomatic row. The place was lousy with Russians and all manner of East Bloc functionaries seeking to consolidate the small Southeast Asian country into Moscow’s orbit. And America was not welcome.

One of the Soviets’ favorite tactics was to tail us, letting us know they were always there watching us, onto whatever activities, official and otherwise, that we handful of American officials were up to. The more active we were, the greater the harassment. Being especially outgoing with the locals and fluent in their language, I was a top target. After leaving a reception one evening, I was tailed by a Russian well known to us as a KGB operative in the Soviet embassy. The squat, bald Khrushchev look-alike gamely tried to tailgate my Malibu in his creaky little Lada sedan. When I sped up, so did he. When I braked, so did he. When I turned, so did he. Pissed, I decided to show the little creep what Detroit was capable of. I led him onto an unpaved country road. Then I let all eight cylinders of the Chevy reach their full potential. I’d get a lead on the KGB guy, then suddenly brake, raising billowing dust clouds for him to choke on. I repeated this stop-and-go tactic until he finally gave up and limped home for his pulmonary health, if nothing else.

This kind of cat-and-mouse play has been a feature of life for Western diplomats posted to hostile nations for many years. I was bugged, watched and intimidated in a variety of ways during my two-decade-plus diplomatic career, once even having my tires slashed by Cuban secret police. Many of my colleagues can tell harrowing tales of being shoved, having their children followed, their homes ransacked and dog feces smeared on their door knobs, among other imaginative acts of vandalism perpetrated by agents of America’s adversaries.

What’s currently happening in Russia, however, appears to go far beyond the pale. The Washington Post reported that a U.S. diplomat attempting to enter our embassy was recently assaulted and seriously injured by one of the Russian police goons who linger just outside our mission. The diplomat had to be medically evacuated to another country for treatment. This was not merely a “diplomatic incident,” which surely was the subject of an official U.S. protest, but a crime. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, to which Russia is a signatory, states, “The person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving State shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity… The private residence of a diplomatic agent shall enjoy the same inviolability and protection as the premises of the mission.” These protections further extend to diplomats’ family members.

The official harassment of U.S. diplomats has increased dramatically. Diplomats report harrowing tales of being shoved, having their children followed, their homes ransacked and dog feces smeared on their door knobs.

The Post further reports incidents recently involving home intrusions – including defecation on one family’s carpet, slashed tires and intimidation by Russian traffic police. A U.S. defense attaché’s dog was killed while he was away. Former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul was incessantly hounded by ostensible Russian TV crews badgering him with belligerent statements. His children were followed by Russian security personnel. McFaul, who actively promoted human rights, was particularly singled out during his two years in Moscow. Now back at Stanford, Moscow continues to deride him. “We remember his professional incompetence. McFaul’s diplomatic mission fell through with a crash,” said Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman with undiplomatic bluntness. Not missing a beat, McFaul shot back in a tweet: “Why is she so obsessed with me?”

The official harassment has increased dramatically since the U.S. and its allies imposed sanctions against Russia following its aggression against Ukraine and 2014 takeover of Crimea. Moscow, in fact, makes no bones about its actions. “Diplomacy is based on reciprocity. The more the U.S. damages relations, the harder it will be for U.S. diplomats to work in Russia,” the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman tweeted.

A U.S. embassy Moscow official told me, “We are deeply troubled by the way our employees have been treated over the past two years. We have raised, and will continue to raise, at the highest levels any incidents inconsistent with protections guaranteed by international law, and we will also respond appropriately in accordance with U.S. and international law.” Secretary of State John Kerry has raised the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but thus far to no avail. The State Department announced it had expelled two Russian embassy officers on June 17 in response to the Russian policeman’s assault on the U.S. diplomat. Russia responded in kind, kicking out two U.S. embassy Moscow officials.

The State Department is now providing special training in how to deal with aggressive actions by Russian security to select personnel headed for diplomatic assignments in Russia and neighboring countries.

So, why do they do it? Petty revenge? To mess with our diplomats’ heads? Just plain barbarism?

“They do it to humiliate the diplomats, to deny you any sense that you control your environment – your home. They do it to mess with your mind. They do it to make you angry because then you make bad decisions. They do it because they can, and they want you to know that,” a former ambassador to a post-Soviet republic told me. During her earlier years of service in Moscow, this U.S. diplomat was the target of repeated acts of vandalism and harassment, ranging from her car windows being smashed to Moscow’s issuing a visa to her crazy ex-husband. Others in the embassy have had their homes vandalized, their windows opened in the dead of winter and their freezers unplugged, resulting in the spoilage of expensive imported provisions.

Here’s the rub: we cannot retaliate by beating up their diplomats and ransacking their diplomats’ homes. Why? Because we are a civilized nation that follows the rules. On one occasion of which I am aware, the State Department, in fact, years ago intervened to stop some retired federal employees who had planned to pull vigilante-style pranks against one communist nation’s diplomats in response to their government’s maltreatment of our diplomats.

Diplomatic immunity is a concept and practice that has evolved over generations, having been practiced by ancient monarchs of the Indian subcontinent and refined by the Italian city-states of the Renaissance. Realizing that killing the messengers was actually bad for a sovereign’s and a people’s long-term security interests, heads of state, over the centuries, developed the practice of protecting foreign envoys from attack and indeed treating them as honored guests. Ironically, Genghis Khan was a staunch defender of diplomatic immunity. His Mongols would often wipe entire cities off the map as revenge for the killing of their ambassadors. They even destroyed the Khwarezmid Empire after their envoys had been manhandled.

In recent times, the most egregious case of a state-sanctioned action against diplomats was the 1979 Iranian seizure of the U.S. embassy and its 52-member staff. The Iranians held them for 444 days. Many of the Americans were tortured.

“The problem with retaliating against the Russians for harassing our diplomats is that you have to find a way to do it that is both legal and does not hurt your side more,” a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who specialized in Russia told me. This is not just a moral issue, but also a practical one. Each retaliatory act generally leads to another, further aggravating the problem. Further restricting the movements of Russian diplomats in our country or expelling some inevitably leads to a spiral of mutual retaliation that can get out of control as happened in 1986 when the Reagan administration kicked out dozens of KGB operatives, leading to Moscow’s expulsion of an equal number of American diplomats.

The best approach is to isolate it from the other issues in the relationship and to find a way to make the Russians see that it is in their interest to engage in more civilized behavior. A policy of carrots and sticks is needed, one that entails identifying and taking away something the Russians want and, should they retaliate, will lead to their losing more than we will. At the same time, we should be forward-leaning by proposing changes in the way we treat each other’s officials to make life easier for them in both countries.

Measures could include:

Publicizing Russian harassment by installing video cameras in and around the homes of U.S. staff as well as at entrances to the U.S. embassy, if they do not already exist, to catch the Russians in the act of harassing or assaulting our employees. Then disseminate footage of such attacks to the global media.

Declaring a travel advisory for areas of Russia where our diplomats are being mistreated, specifically, Moscow and St. Petersburg. The advisories would warn American citizens to avoid these areas for their own safety. The resultant drop in tourism and business travel would be felt by the Russians.

Increasing the number of FBI and other counterintelligence personnel who monitor Russians in this country. The Bureau’s Counterintelligence Division is too thinly stretched to be able to adequately monitor the suspected spies of Russia and other hostile nations.

Reconstituting the Cold War era Active Measures Working Group, which exposed Soviet disinformation and covert operations. The new working group would counter Russian disinformation, including the very active social media troll farm in St. Petersburg. It would also publicize Moscow’s actions against diplomats.

Continuing to raise the issue with the Russians via diplomatic channels, preferably after they have lost something they want to get back, in order to re-start a process in which both sides would be looking for ways to help each other’s diplomats, rather than to harm them.

The Obama administration would be wise to adopt actions ahead of Congress. The draft 2017 Intelligence Authorization Bill currently being considered by the Senate would impose some tough anti-Russia measures, including tighter travel restrictions on Russian officials, that could backfire on our diplomats’ abilities to do their jobs.

A government’s attacking foreign diplomats is an act of weakness. It is what bullies do when frustrated by their own lack of innovative thinking in addressing the challenges facing them. And I can speak from experience that official harassment never deterred my colleagues and me from doing our jobs. Russia has backed itself into a corner by its aggressions in Ukraine and Crimea. Instead of reconsidering its actions and pursuing innovative diplomacy, a morally and intellectually bankrupt Kremlin sends thugs to beat up foreign official guests and otherwise makes life difficult for them and their families via Halloween-style hijinks, and worse. This is not the civilized behavior of a modern nation-state, but the barbaric actions of a strongman-led autocracy. That the Russian government cannot even meet the standards of Genghis Khan speaks for itself.

The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government.

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Follow James on Twitter @JamesLBruno. James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.