WASHINGTON—Some of the commentary on the Russian agents recently captured by the FBI has centered on the fact that Moscow was spying on the United States while President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev celebrated their nuclear and diplomatic partnership at Ray’s Hell Burger, or on the evolving focus of Russia’s intelligence services. But all of this misses the real point: how much the mediocrity of the spy ring reveals about the decadence of present-day Russia.

It is not surprising that Russia spies on the U.S. while cooperation occurs in many areas—the nuclear deal, the sanctions against Iran, the suspension of the anti-missile shield in Central Europe. All states spy, and friends spy on each other too—even Israeli agents, including Jonathan Pollard, have been caught in the United States.

Equally unsurprising is that Moscow should pursue non-military and non-political targets. Industrial espionage by Russia is as old as Lenin. Commercial and technological intelligence may have become a top priority in the time since the Berlin Wall fell, but it was also a key part of the information-gathering apparatus of the communists. One of the missions of Markus Wolf’s Stasi, East Germany’s notorious intelligence service, was to steal industrial secrets from West Germany, as he explains in his memoirs.

The problem with the latest bunch of moles was not that they placed pictures on Facebook (Anna Chapman), were futurist technology geeks (Donald Heathfield), were travel agents (Mikhail Semenko), were barbecue-grilling suburbanites (Richard and Cynthia Murphy), or penned leftist columns in New York’s El Diario La Prensa (Vicky Pelaez). Actually, these seem like pretty good covers. Yet by all accounts, none of the spooks really did much besides what it looked like they were doing. Apparently they milked Russia’s budget for nothing, a delicious irony if one thinks of Russia’s pervasive venality: Transparency International places the country on a par with Zimbabwe in its Corruption Perceptions Index.

Everything about the spies was comically passe, including the technology—bags exchanged in train stations, shortwave radio, invisible ink. It all begs the question: Why did the FBI expose them before they were able to do anything substantive for their paymasters? The fact that the U.S. has exchanged the spies for four agents of Western countries imprisoned by Moscow suggests these amateur spooks are simply bargaining chips—or meant to send Russia the message that not even amateur spooks will be tolerated on U.S. soil.

That Moscow should have maintained them conveys how dysfunctional the Russian state has become. These pathetic agents confirm the gulf between the neo-Czarist illusions of grandeur and the reality of a country surpassed in economic and technological achievement by many Asian competitors. What kind of bureaucrat allows an agent of Russian origin who speaks Spanish with a thick Slavic accent to claim he is Uruguayan, as Juan Lazaro, one of the men arrested by the FBI, routinely did in the U.S.?

In his book “China’s Second Revolution,” Eugenio Bregolat, a former Spanish ambassador in Beijing and Moscow, compared China’s successful reform process since 1978 with the decadent sequence of events that began with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost and ended with Vladimir Putin’s emergence in Russia. For him, the key lies in the quality of the communist leadership. Whereas China’s Deng Xiaoping had a clear vision of a midterm path to a market economy that postponed political liberation to the distant future and the skills to defeat his opponents within the state, Gorbachev never wanted to dismantle the system and was clueless in his efforts to suppress dissent, as his defeat at the hands of Boris Yeltsin during an attempted coup by communist retrogrades ultimately proved. As for Yeltsin, he had an intuition about a democratic, capitalistic Russia but no understanding of the institutional underpinnings of a market democracy. Putin was the result.

One may differ with part of this analysis, but there is some truth in the idea that present-day Russia stemmed from the failure of a reform process that started with Gorbachev and never found its bearings.

In a recent article in Spain’s ABC newspaper, Alberto Sotillo wrote that “the USSR was a very shoddy and sloppy place . . . but the things they did right—they really did right.” Soviet espionage was indeed able to penetrate powerful circles in the United States, including placing a network of agents in various departments of the U.S. government. It is as yet unclear if Putin and company can get anything right.