RUSSIA said yesterday the US arrests of suspects in an alleged Russian spy ring would not hurt improving relations with Washington, softening its tone after an initial angry response.
The Russian Foreign Ministry at first slammed the US actions as “baseless and improper” and hinted the arrests could dampen Moscow’s enthusiasm for warmer ties, raising the spectre of a Cold War-style diplomatic stand-off.
But yesterday the Foreign Ministry expressed optimism that the fall-out would not ruin the relationship “reset” initiated by US President Barack Obama and embraced by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
“We expect that the incident involving the arrest in the United States of a group of people suspected of spying for Russia will not negatively affect Russia-US relations,” a Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
The US Justice Department on Monday announced it had arrested 10 suspected spies in four eastern cities. An 11th suspect was arrested in Cyprus on Tuesday and freed on bail.
The suspects were accused of seeking information on issues ranging from nuclear weapons research to the global gold market and CIA job applicants, according to US prosecutors.
With buried banknotes, coded communications and ritualised rules for secret hand-offs, the US accusations echoed spy scandals of the Soviet era and the more recent chill in relations with a Kremlin which, during the 2000-2008 presidency of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, often accused the West of trying to weaken Russia through espionage. However, analysts said neither nation is in the mood for a new downturn in relations. Russia is counting on US backing to clinch entry into the World Trade Organisation, where it is the largest economy still banging on the doors after a 17-year accession campaign.
That support was high on Medvedev’s agenda at a summit with Obama last week that followed a visit to California’s Silicon Valley, a hub of US expertise crucial to Russia’s uphill battle to modernise its overly resource-reliant economy.
Obama needs Russia on his side for efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear programme, keep supply lines open to forces in Afghanistan and advance his goal of progress towards a world without nuclear arms.
“It is absolutely evident that the scandal will wind down, as neither side wants a disruption of the ‘reset’,” said Alexander Golts, a Russian military analyst.
The relatively mild Russian rhetoric clearly indicated that the Kremlin wants to limit the damage, Golts said.
Putin sent that message on Tuesday, telling ex-US President Bill Clinton that US police were “out of control” and “throwing people in jail”.
He then added that they were just doing their job, and stressed he hoped the spy scandal would not reverse “all the positive gains”.
Russia-US ties deteriorated steadily after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Putin vehemently criticised, and hit new lows when Russia sent forces into pro-West Georgia in a five-day war in 2008.
Washington has also signalled it does not want the arrests to dent the upswing in relations.
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