Russian spy ring paymaster disappears from Cyprus

The Russian spy ring's alleged paymaster has disappeared, after he was initially arrested and released on bail on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. His escape could further test the recent 'reset' in US-Russia relations.

By , Correspondent

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    Robert Christopher Metsos, 55, a Canadian passport holder and alleged Russian spy wanted by the United States, is seen in this undated handout photo released by the Cyprus Police Department July 1, 2010. Metsos was arrested on the holiday island on Tuesday after being named by the U.S. Justice Department. He was released on bail but failed to report to a police station on Wednesday evening.
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A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The Russian spy ring's alleged paymaster is at large after he was initially arrested and then released on bail Tuesday in Cyprus. His disappearance has highlighted Cyprus's close ties to Russia, and the potential that Moscow helped him escape from the Mediterranean island.

Cyprus law enforcement issued an arrest warrant today for Christopher Robert Metsos, 54, when he failed to show up for a Wednesday meeting with police. Mr. Metsos, a Canadian citizen, was initially arrested Tuesday while preparing to board an early-morning flight to Budapest.

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The Guardian reports that "the Americans, who were astonished that Metsos was freed on bail in the first place, will be working on the assumption that he has been whisked out of the country by the Russian intelligence service."

Mr. Metsos had been staying in the seaside town of Larnaca, about 12 miles from the cease-fire line that divides the island. Cyprus courts do not usually grant foreigners bail, Reuters notes, citing flight risk from the island nation and its breakaway northern region.

In the past, Cyprus been known as a regional hub for spies across the Mideast, since it lies near the meeting point of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Only Turkey recognizes the Turkish Cypriot northern area, which has no formal extradition treaties and is linked only to Turkey by air, and additionally to Lebanon and Syria by ferry.

So why did authorities release Metsos on bail?

"I'm truly surprised that the court issued no such detention order against an individual who is alleged to be a spy," Ionas Nicolaou, chairman of Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee, told the Associated Press.

"The nagging question of why he was released on bail is best posed to the court, not the police," police spokesman Michalis Katsounotos told the wire agency.

The timing and publicity of the arrests in the spy ring have fueled Russian suspicion, coming on the heels of US President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s talks in the US, one of the friendliest US-Russia meetings ever. American authorities said they tracked the ring for years but chose to make the arrests Sunday when one of the alleged spies seemed ready to leave the country.

US court papers allege the 10 US-based spies were on “long-term deep-cover assignments” to blend in with US communities and that the spies claim to have gotten details on CIA leadership turnover, contacted an individual at a US research facility that works on nuclear warheads, and planned to start a network of students in Washington, The Christian Science Monitor reported. Mr. Metsos, the 11th spy involved in the case, funneled them cash from Cyprus.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov initially acted angrily toward the allegations and their timing, Al Jazeera reports. But by Wednesday, Moscow had toned down its response. A foreign ministry official said, “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 Russian-US relations," speaking on the condition of not being named.

An analysis by Russia state-owned RIA Novosti newspaper’s correspondent Andrei Fedyashin also argues that it’s suspicious that the arrests were exposed in such a high-profile manner right after Medvedev’s positive visit with Obama, and that spying does not need to damage relations between two countries:

No intelligence service in the world can function without field officers.

The CIA and the FBI are fully aware that the [Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SRV) and Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU)] are engaged in these activities. To see anything sinister in this is as absurd as accusing all diplomats of espionage. Diplomats, intelligence officers, and journalists essentially perform the same job, their work just ends up in different inboxes. Again, there is nothing sinister in this common and, indeed, universal practice.

... Our relations with the United States are far from perfect, and it would be naive and even irresponsible for either country not to verify information using their own sources, i.e. their spies.

Russia's continued use of spies was perhaps most noted with the fatal poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in England in 2006. Subsequent British efforts to extradite the prime suspect in Litvinenko's murder, Andrei Lugovoi, have been rejected by the Kremlin. Mr. Lugovoi was soon elected to the State Duma, giving him parliamentary immunity, the Monitor then reported.

It led to a cooling of British-Russian relations, with tit-for-tat diplomatic actions.

But Alexander Rahr, program director of Russia and Eurasia at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said the recent spy ring crackdown would not derail relations, according to an article in Russia Profile.

“The reset is continuing. Relations between Russia and the United States were never so good under President George Bush. Not everyone likes this in the United States, and not everybody likes it in Russia. But it would be far-fetched to say that this spy scandal has been artificially organized by forces on one or the other sides who want to spoil this,” said Rahr, adding that it would nonetheless be a “test of the ‘reset’.”

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