Bill Clinton met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow. Pool photograph by Alexey Druginyn
NY Times | Jun 29, 2010
By CLIFFORD J. LEVY and ELLEN BARRY
MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin criticized American law enforcement agencies on Tuesday for breaking up an what they described as a Russian espionage ring in the United States, as other Russian officials questioned whether the arrests were intended to damage relations between the countries.
Mr. Putin, at a meeting with former President Bill Clinton, brought up the subject.
“You have come to Moscow at the exact right time,” Mr. Putin told Mr. Clinton. “Your police have gotten carried away, putting people in jail.”
Mr. Putin offered no comment on the specific accusations against the 11 suspects, who were described by prosecutors as living under false identities in an effort to penetrate American society. Russia has acknowledged that they are Russian citizens.
“I really expect that the positive achievements that have been made in our intergovernmental relations lately will not be damaged by the latest events,” he said. “We really hope that the people who value Russian-American relations understand this.”
Other Russian officials went further on Tuesday, suggesting that the timing of the case was politically motivated. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said the Russian government was awaiting more information from the United States about the accusations.
“They have not explained what the issue is,” Mr. Lavrov told reporters in Jerusalem, where he was on an official visit. “I hope that they will explain. The moment when this was done was chosen with a certain elegance.”
After Mr. Lavrov spoke, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling the arrests “baseless” and “unseemly.” It accused American prosecutors of acting “in the spirit of the spy passions of the cold war period.”
“We would like to note only that this type of release of information has happened more than once in the past, when our relations were on the rise,” the statement said. “In any case, it is deeply regrettable that all this is taking place on the background of the ‘reset’ in Russian-American relations declared by the United States administration itself.”
On Tuesday night, the Foreign Ministry issued another statement acknowledging that the suspects were Russian citizens.
“They have not conducted any activities directed against the interests of the United States,” the statement said.
The ministry said it hoped that prosecutors would allow the suspects access to lawyers and Russian consular officials.
The arrests on Monday came after a period of warming in relations between the United States and Russia, with President Dmitri A. Medvedev making a visit to the United States this month, including to Silicon Valley in California, that was hailed here as a success. Mr. Medvedev met with President Obama, and the two seemed to have developed a personal bond.
Some Russian politicians declared that the announcement of the arrests indicated that hostile elements in the United States government were bent on preventing relations from flourishing.
Vladimir Kolesnikov, a prominent member of Parliament from Mr. Putin’s ruling party, said the timing “was not a coincidence.”
“Unfortunately, in America there are people who live with the old baggage, the baggage of the cold war, double standards,” Mr. Kolesnikov said.
On Tuesday, the arrests were widely covered on the state-controlled national television networks in Russia.
One of the people accused of involvement in the espionage ring made no secret of his ties to Russia, openly taking part in Russian social media in order to keep up with friends from high school and university.
The suspect, Mikhail Semenko, a Russian immigrant, maintained a page on Odnoklassniki, one of the most popular Russian Web sites, where he joined alumni groups from his high school and university in Russia’s Far East. He lived in Blagoveshchensk, 3,600 miles from Moscow, and attended Amur State University, earning a degree in international relations.
Cells of undercover operatives, masked as ordinary citizens, are known in Russian as “illegals,” and they occupy a storied position in Soviet culture.
One of Russia’s beloved fictional characters is an undercover agent, SS-Standartenführer Max Otto von Stirlitz, whose penetration of Hitler’s inner circle was at the center of popular television series.
Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who served as a K.G.B. officer in East Germany in the 1980s, has said Stirlitz’s character helped shape an entire generation of Soviet youth.
Illegals, unlike most spies, live in foreign countries without the benefit of a diplomatic cover, which would have offered them immunity from prosecution if they were caught. Soviet intelligence services began training a corps of these agents shortly after the October Revolution in 1917, when few countries had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and it came to be seen as a particular Soviet specialty.
It is both risky and very expensive work, since agents often spend years just developing a fake life story, known in Russian as a “legend,” and because the K.G.B. would often keep an agent in place abroad for years or even decades before he or she was able to gather useful information.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many career spymasters began to speak publicly about the adventures of the illegals, but several recent arrests have come as reminders that the tactic is still in use.
In 2008, Estonia found that one of its top intelligence officials was reporting to a Russian agent who was living under a Portuguese identity as Antonio de Jesus Amorett Graf. In 2006 Canadian officials arrested a Russian spy who had been living under an assumed Canadian identity as Paul William Hampel.