'Spirit of the Cold War': Russia accuses US diplomat of working for CIA
MOSCOW – Russia accused the United States of spy games in the “spirit of the Cold War” Tuesday, saying it had arrested a U.S. diplomat in Moscow for trying to recruit for the CIA.
Russian security services detained the American in the middle of the night, accusing him of offering large amounts of money to his Russian counterparts in exchange for secret co-operation.
The Federal Security Service (FSB) circulated pictures of the Embassy worker to Russian media, including a photograph of items it said were found in his possession including two wigs, a torch, a compass and a wad of 500-euro ($650) notes.
The bizarre incident, which evoked Soviet-era espionage, came just days after a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during which Washington and Moscow agreed to try to bring the warring sides in Syria together for an international peace conference.
“At the time when our presidents have confirmed readiness for developing bilateral collaboration… such provocative actions sound in the spirit of the Cold War and they absolutely do not help the strengthening of mutual trust,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The ministry called for the expulsion of the U.S. diplomat as “persona non grata”, and summoned U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul to a meeting.
The CIA did not comment on the episode Tuesday, but one U.S. official said the arrest was unlikely to have a big impact on long-term relations between Washington and Moscow.
"The interests of two countries will remain paramount,” the official said. "It shouldn't be blown out of proportion. These things happen, it's kind of the way the game is played and has been played for a long time.”
The man was an employee at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow but was working under cover for the CIA, according to the FSB, which is based in the Lubyanka – the one-time headquarters of the much-feared KGB, the Soviet secret police network of which Russian president Vladimir Putin was once in charge.
The FSB said the American was detained and taken to the Lubyanka before being handed over to the U.S. Embassy.
He was carrying "special technical equipment'', a "large sum of money" and the "means for changing one's appearance," according to an FSB statement which also accused the U.S. of “repeatedly” trying to recruit Russian law enforcement officials.
America’s top intelligence official last month said Russia had been “very cooperative” with the U.S. since the Boston Marathon bomb attack, for which the suspects were Russia-born Tamerlan Tsarnaev - killed in a shootout - and his brother, Dzokhar. However, President Barack Obama noted that “old habits die hard” and that some suspicion between the two countries’ intelligence agencies, dating back decades, remains.
Experts expressed some surprise at the old-school nature of the alleged espionage, but noted that intelligence-gathering had not diminished despite the end of the Cold War.
“If anything, it has increased,” said James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at U.K. think tank, Chatham House. “The methods have changed – or so we thought – because it’s more about industrial espionage and corruption these days.”
He added: “Relations between the U.S. and Russia as bad as they have ever been. There has been talk of a ‘reset’ but that’s more of a game where both sides briefly pretend they get on.
“There is a huge degree of mistrust, particular on Putin’s side as he still feels he was betrayed after 9/11. The conference on Syria is about Russia getting a chance to put forward its views rather than any serious attempt to reach a peace agreement.”
Tuesday’s incident is not the most embarrassing intelligence blunder in Russia. British officials last year admitted bugging a Moscow park in 2006 by disguising a recording device as a rock – a move that unraveled when the FSB witnessed a British diplomat picking up the football-sized rock and walking away with it.