The Russian spy case, in which 10 alleged Russian spies were arrested just days after President Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev held one of the friendliest US-Russia meetings ever, looks like a carefully timed plot by disgruntled American hawks to reverse the warming relations.
At least, that is the nearly unanimous reaction to the scandal from Russian officials, security analysts, and political journalists.
"This scandal has been invented out of thin air," says Pavel Salin, an analyst with the Center for Political Trends, an independent Moscow think tank. "It's part of a backlash by US hawks to the improving relations between our countries. There are players on both sides who are still operating with a cold war mentality, and this is their way of working."
Many also believe that the scandal will badly hurt Mr. Medvedev ahead of 2012 presidential elections, in which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB foreign intelligence officer whom some still see as the real leader of Russia, may sideline Medvedev with his considerable clout.
"It really looked like Medvedev was gaining points, starting to close the gap between him and Putin in terms of who is most capable," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow.
But now Medvedev looks like he fell into an American trap, by making concessions on Russia's Iran policy and other issues amid the warm glow of Obama's hospitality, then getting hit with these spy allegations just as he was leaving, Mr. Konovalov says.
"This scandal shows Medvedev as not so tough, not so experienced as the former intelligence officer Putin," in the eyes of people who really matter in Moscow, meaning the military and security establishment. "So, objectively, this can only play directly into Putin's hands," he adds.
'Very special timing'
All appear to agree that the timing of the arrest announcement – the day after Medvedev wound up a successful four-day trip to the US and Canada – must have been orchestrated for political effect.
The SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence agency, rebuffed all requests for comment Tuesday. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, currently visiting Israel, said only that "[The Americans] haven't explained what they mean" by the spying allegations. "I hope they will do so. The only thing I can say is that it was some sort of very special timing," he added.
Most Russian analysts say that the charges are part of a domestic plot against Obama – though some admit their perceptions of the US dynamic is based on how dirty politics would be played in Russia.
Spy scandals are often publicized in Russia during times of international tension, including the thrilling 2006 capture in Moscow of undercover British agents using electronic devices hidden in rocks when Russia-Britain relations were at low ebb. Another involved the expulsion of two Canadian NATO diplomats under espionage rules a year ago, apparently to punish NATO for holding war games with neighboring Georgia.
"Obama has lost face" by having a nest of Russian spies revealed just days after hosting Medvedev, including a tête-a-tête at Obama's favorite hamburger joint, says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "American hard-liners want to spoil the reset in relations between Russia and the US, and this one incident has done much to destroy the momentum."
Details sound 'more like fiction than fact'
Many Russians with knowledge of Soviet-era intelligence operations say they simply don't believe today's SVR is capable of masterminding the kind of long-term operation that's being described in the media, involving deep-penetration agents who've taken on American identities and burrowed into local communities, institutions, and political circles.
"I smell a rat in this story," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the liberal Moscow daily Kommersant. "There are a lot of awkward details that sound more like fiction than fact. It's just not convincing at all."
Some experts suggest the FBI may have arrested Russians who moved to the US over the past two decades for private reasons, and then offered their services to the SVR.
"There are lots of Russians who moved abroad on the principle that 'my motherland is where things are good for me.' But then they find they have to make a living, and they get up to all sorts of things," says Mr. Strokan. "It's probably something like that, and not a big, organized Russian spying operation. What we're seeing here is the famous American scandal industry at work; it all comes from the US domestic agenda."
But Konovalov says he doesn't think the FBI would accuse people without any solid evidence. "But you never know," he adds. "There is no doubt that the professionalism of intelligence agencies on both sides has diminished a lot over the past decade or so."
Russia media downplay the scandal
Most Russian analysts say the spy scandal will have little public resonance in Russia, where the state-guided media is already representing it as a minor footnote to Medvedev's highly successful North America trip.
"I've seen an awful lot of spy scandals come and go," says Konovalov. "They can slow things down for a bit, but they seldom derail a relationship."
But it will undoubtedly have an impact in the Kremlin infighting over who will be the establishment candidate for president in elections that are less than two years away.