Russia reacts to expulsion
WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush sought to keep U.S. relations with Russia on an even keel Thursday, but a furious Kremlin was threatening to match the ouster of more than 50 Russian diplomats suspected of undercover intelligence activities.
The warning was conveyed privately as well as publicly by Russian authorities. ”Naturally, we will easily find” U.S. diplomats to be expelled ”in a more painful form to the U.S. than it was in our case,” Sergei Ivanov, chief of Russia’s influential Security Council, said on Polish state television during a visit to Warsaw.
The Bush administration countered that there was no comparable contingent of U.S. undercover agents in Russia and no American there had infiltrated Russia’s counterintelligence operation as FBI agent Robert Hanssen stands accused of doing, a senior U.S. official said.
At day’s end, it was not clear how Russia would retaliate, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In Moscow, Russia’s foreign minister said the expulsions, the most since the Cold War, were political. But Bush said he was simply dealing with facts, and the two nations could maintain a good relationship.
”I made the decision. It was the right thing to do,” Bush said.
Six Russians assigned to Moscow’s embassy in Washington were linked by U.S. officials to the case of Hanssen, a longtime FBI agent arrested a month ago on charges of selling secrets to Russia. Two of the six have left the United States; the four others must depart within 10 days.
At the same time, Bush ordered the Russian diplomatic contingent sharply reduced, officials said. A total of 46 Russians, at the embassy and at consulates across the country, have until July 1 to leave, they said.
”I don’t think any U.N. employees are involved among the 50,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Thursday night.
A top foreign affairs aide to President Vladimir Putin expressed regret. ”Any campaign of spy mania and searching for enemies brings deep regret, and this is a fallback to the Cold War epoch,” Sergei Prikhodko said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
It’s a long-standing practice for U.S. and Russian intelligence officers to be posted in overseas embassies as diplomats. But after a reduction in the Russian contingent, a buildup began in 1997, and the Bush administration decided to reverse it, inspired by the Hanssen case.
”I’m confident we can have a good relationship with the Russians,” Bush said after addressing the National Newspaper Association. ”We’ve got some areas where we can work together.”
Along the same lines, Condoleezza Rice, his assistant for national security, called the expulsions an isolated incident.
”We see Russia as a potential partner in many parts of the world and we look forward to getting on with a positive agenda,” Rice said.
Reducing the number of disguised intelligence agents ”has been an issue that has been on the agenda for some time with the Russian government,” Rice said.
Asked if the Kremlin might retaliate, the White House official replied: ”I certainly hope not. This should go to the end of it.”
In Moscow, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov left no doubt it was not the end of the matter.
”Naturally, as it has before, Russia will firmly and steadfastly defend its national interests and will adequately respond to this unfriendly step by the United States,” Ivanov said in Moscow as he somberly read a statement on government-controlled ORT television.
”At the same time, the Russian leadership assumes that in Washington, the policy and logic of those who try to push mankind and the United States (back) into the epoch of the Cold War and confrontation won’t prevail,” he said.
Complaining about the public way the Bush administration went at the situation, Ivanov said, ”This could easily have been settled along … special channels and by special contacts.”
Sen. Bob Graham, R-Fla., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he assumed Russia would make a request ”for some of our most experienced to leave.”
”That is the expected way in which these counterintelligence incidents work when they go sour,” he said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell called in Russian Ambassador Ury M. Ushakov on Wednesday to inform him of the expulsions and then talked by telephone to Ivanov. John Beyrle, who heads the State Department office that deals with Russia and other former Soviet republics, had a follow-up meeting with the ambassador Thursday.
”We consider this matter closed. We have important interests in maintaining cooperative and productive relations with Russia, and we intend to continue working to advance those interests,” Powell said.
And while Powell and other top officials publicly indicated they considered the dispute to be over, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, ”The department made clear to the Russian side that any other Russian officials who may be subsequently implicated in the Hanssen case will not be welcome in the United States.”
The chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees agreed that spying remains a problem, and the hunt for American spies within the U.S. government must continue.
”I don’t think we’ve ever solved the mole problem,” Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., a former CIA agent, told reporters. The Senate chairman, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said he thinks more than one spy still is at work in sensitive government posts. ”The Russians and other nations don’t generally operate with just one agent,” Shelby said. ”It’s not prudent.”
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After a period of dry, warm weather, winter returns this week to Lake Tahoe.