Is that President Obama having lunch with a Russian spy?
No, silly, that’s Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he’s with. The Russian spies live down the street.
As it turns out, that fictional dialogue could have occurred last week at Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Va. But who knew, when Mr. Obama took his Russian counterpart to his favorite hamburger joint in northern Virginia last Thursday, that the Federal Bureau of Investigation would soon be breaking up an alleged Russian spy ring that included three Arlington residents.
With the arrest Sunday of 10 East Coast residents (an 11th was arrested Tuesday in Cyprus and released on bail) on charges of conspiring to act as undeclared agents of a foreign government, one might assume: So there goes the vaunted “reset” of US-Russia relations, right?
Actually, probably not.
“I’d expect the diplomatic fallout from this to be fairly limited,” says Paul Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center in Washington. “These cases in the past have tended to blow over unless someone wants to make a big issue of it, and it doesn’t seem in this case that anyone in the administration really does.”
The big question now will be what, if any, “issue” the Russian government will make of the case.
“The ball is really in the Russians’ court now,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “The Obama people have de-linked the issue from the broader relationship,” she adds, “but we’ll have to wait and see if the Russians essentially do the same or if it will be a return to a kind of cold-war, tit-for-tat response.”
Why the Obama de-link?
For one thing, Obama has invested heavily in his personal rapport with Mr. Medvedev, and the White House lists improved relations with Russia as one of the president’s foreign-policy accomplishments. Obama seems unlikely to jeopardize the progress he’s made with the Russians on issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to Iran over a still-murky but essentially rinky-dink spy operation (at least from what is known so far from the federal complaint filed Monday).
Here’s an example, as described in the complaint: When a man in one of the alleged “spy couples” told his cohort (as caught by wiretap) that his Russian employers were disappointed that he failed to list a source for the information he’d provided, she advised, “Put down any politician from here!”
The United States, with the arrests, appears to be telling the Russians they don’t like the activity and to stop it – but there is no attempt so far to inflate the case into a major international row. The State Department referred inquiries about the case to the Justice Department.
Russian officials, on the other hand, were fuming over the arrests – perhaps in part because the court papers appeared to reveal the slim pickings the alleged “deep cover” agents had been able to deliver.
The Foreign Ministry in Moscow called the case “baseless,” while questioning the US government’s aim in making the high-profile arrests. “It is highly deplorable that all of this is happening against the background of the reset in Russia-US ties,” the ministry said in a statement.
The moment for the arrests was “chosen with a special finesse,” Mr. Lavrov added tongue in cheek. But Mr. Saunders of the Nixon Center says he did suspect an attention to the diplomatic environment in the timing of the arrests.
“The fact this all came down a few days after Medvedev’s White House visit – when from all indications it could have been before – suggests they waited until the summit was over,” Saunders says.
In a Moscow meeting with former President Clinton, Russian Prime Minister (and former KGB officer) Vladimir Putin criticized the arrests. American police have “gotten carried away, putting people in jail,” he said.
“We should keep an eye out for any short-term impact on the ratification of the new START agreement,” she says, referring to the nuclear-arms reduction treaty that Obama signed recently with Medvedev and that the Senate will vote on. “If the Russian government decides to make this into something of an issue, then we can start to wonder about collateral damage.”