The arrest last Friday of a Maritime Self-Defense Force officer on suspicion of spying for Russia raises the puzzling question: How is it that Moscow needed, or seemed to need, military secrets from Japan in the post-Cold War period, particularly at a time when relations between the two nations are improving?

The Metropolitan Police Department and the Kanagawa Prefectural Police arrested Lt. Cmdr. Shigehiro Hagisaki, a member of the Defense Agency’s National Institute for Defense Studies, on charges of passing defense secrets to a Russian military attache at the Soviet Embassy here. Investigators say Lt. Cmdr. Hagisaki met the Russian at a Tokyo restaurant approximately 10 times between last September and this August to give him confidential information.

The Self-Defense Forces Law prohibits SDF personnel from disclosing classified information to third parties. Anyone who has leaked such information is liable to a prison term of up to one year or a fine of not more than 30,000 yen. According to police, Lt. Cmdr. Hagisaki has admitted giving the Russian officer an assortment of classified data, including the names and addresses of senior SDF officers. It is not yet known whether the rest of data included more sensitive information.

The military attache, Capt. Victor Bogatenkov, is a member of the Russian intelligence agency GRU and is said to have been engaged in espionage in Japan since he was posted here about three years ago. Bogatenkov left the country soon after Lt. Cmdr. Hagisaki was arrested. Diplomatic immunity makes things particularly difficult for Japanese investigators. For example, their request for an interrogation, made through diplomatic channels, was rejected.

Lt. Cmdr. Hagisaki, a 1986 graduate of the National Defense Academy, trained as an intelligence officer and was fluent in Russian. He first served aboard destroyers and supply ships — assignments that reportedly allowed him access to some of the secrets that the MSDF shared with the U.S. Navy. He was then posted to a unit in charge of analyzing foreign military intelligence. He also served as a staff officer for a submarine fleet.

During a stint at the defense institute, beginning in 1998, Lt. Cmdr. Hagisaki took an advanced course in security affairs — the equivalent of a master’s course at the defense academy. Regarded by his colleagues as a “scholarly type,” he became a senior researcher in March. This begs the question: Was he really in a position to obtain the kind of information the Russian military wanted? And did he really pass on the kind of confidential data that is classified under the SDF Law?

Investigations have revealed that Lt. Cmdr. Hagisaki was wined and dined in return for his tips and also received several hundreds of thousands of yen in cash. He is thought to have become acquainted with Bogatenkov during an exchange of defense officials at the defense academy. Members of the GRU are said to have used every opportunity since the Soviet era to establish contacts with SDF officials. And they allegedly employed all manner of tricks, such as inviting people to dinner as a token of friendship and promising (falsely) to give tips of interest to the SDF.

This is the second time that an SDF officer has been charged with spying. In 1980, a retired major general of the Ground Self-Defense Force gave a Soviet Embassy attache some of the military information he had obtained from GSDF officers. The main purpose of Soviet espionage was to gather information concerning U.S. forces, but after the end of the Cold War the emphasis is said to have shifted to industrial espionage targeted at high-tech information.

Japan-Russia relations have improved significantly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Top leaders of the two nations exchanged visits in recent years, the latest being the trip to Tokyo by Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month. Defense exchanges also expanded, particularly after 1996, when a Japanese defense minister made his first official visit to Moscow. In these times of warming bilateral ties, one wonders why Russia has to continue espionage in this country.

One of the frustrating things about spying cases is that the truth is rarely unraveled. Japanese suspects may be arrested and questioned thoroughly, but Russian spies, and for that matter foreign spies generally, are protected by a potent weapon — diplomatic immunity. To escape scrutiny they almost always leave the country, as Bogatenkov did.

Given the absence of military tension between the two nations, the big question is what Capt. Bogatenkov was really going after. Perhaps that will never be fully known. What is clear is that the latest incident has damaged Japan’s feelings toward Russia.

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