WASHINGTON: The United States took pains Tuesday to avoid rebuking Russia over a Cold War-style spy row and said the uproar would not damage President Barack Obama’s vaunted “reset” of ties with the Kremlin.
The White House said Obama knew the FBI was closing in on the 11 alleged spies when he met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for a warm White House summit and chummy burger bar trip last week, though did not mention it.
Russia, which has condemned the arrests, also launched a damage control operation, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer, said he hoped they would not have an impact on improving US-Russia ties.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was repeatedly goaded in his daily briefing to condemn Russia’s action, but styled the operation as solely a “law enforcement” matter.
Asked for Obama’s response to the intriguing tale of deep cover spies living open American lives, Gibbs again attempting to keep the row out of the diplomatic realm, saying: “he did not have a personal reaction that I know of.”
There was none of the outrage or frostiness witnessed during the tense days of the Cold War when both nations ran extensive underground networks and regularly expelled presumed agents.
Gibbs said Obama had known about the unfolding operation against the alleged ring of sleeper spies, in four northeastern states, before he met Medvedev here last week and at G8 and G20 meetings in Canada.
But he said Obama had not raised the issue with the Russian leader.
At one point in the Gibbs briefing, a journalist said he was asking a question as the only Russian in the room — to which one reporter shouted “you never know!” — sparking hilarity.
The State Department meanwhile styled the episode as a remnant of the Cold War covert intelligence struggle between spymasters in Moscow and Washington.
“We’re moving towards a more trusting relationship. We’re beyond the Cold War; our relations absolutely demonstrate that,” said Phil Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European Affairs.
“But I don’t think anyone was hugely shocked to know that some vestiges of old attempts to use intelligence are still there.”
Washington wanted to so improve relations with Moscow that intelligence operations would be unnecessary, he said.
“We’re apparently not there yet.”
The “reset” of relations has seen Russia back new nuclear sanctions against Iran and the signing of a nuclear arms reduction treaty.
Putin, who by odd coincidence was meeting former US president Bill Clinton in Moscow on Tuesday, was critical of the arrests but said he hoped they wouldn’t impact on ties.
“You came at the right time. Your police have let themselves go, and put people in prison,” Putin told his American visitor in comments broadcast on state television, using his trademark earthy language.
“I expect that the positive tendency in relations over the last years is not harmed. We very much hope that people who value good relations understand this.”
The US Justice Department said Monday that 10 “deep-cover” suspects, accused of infiltrating US policymaking for the Kremlin, had been detained on suspicion of seeking details of US nuclear weapons and foreign policy.
Police in Cyprus arrested an 11th suspect, 54-year-old Christopher Metsos, who was picked up at Larnaca airport trying to board an early Tuesday flight to Budapest after immigration officers discovered his name on a stop list.
The intriguing nature of the case, in particular the emergence of Anna Chapman, 28, as a flame-haired tabloid femme fatale, have electrified the media and drawn comparisons to the heyday of Cold War espionage.
Criminal complaints stretching to 37 pages feature tales of false identities, buried money and hidden video cameras that read like a spy novel.
“You were sent to USA for long-term service trip,” read a message decrypted by the FBI and said to be from the Moscow headquarters of the SVR intelligence service, a successor to the Communist-era KGB.
“Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. — all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policy-making circles in US and send intel to C (Moscow Centre).”