WASHINGTON — The scandal over an alleged Russian spy ring erupted at an awkward time for a White House that has staked its foreign policy record on improved cooperation with Moscow, but it appeared unlikely to do lasting damage to U.S.-Russian relations.
The administration sought to dampen tensions, while the Russian government offered the conciliatory hope Tuesday that U.S. authorities would "show proper understanding, taking into account the positive character of the current stage of development of Russian-American relations."
The White House response was notably restrained following the dramatic announcement that 11 people assigned a decade or more to illegally infiltrate American society had been arrested. They are accused of using fake names and claims of U.S. citizenship to burrow into U.S. society and ferret out intelligence as Russian "illegals" — spies operating without diplomatic cover.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs labored to show that the arrests were a law enforcement matter — one not driven by the president, even though President Barack Obama was informed — and played down any political consequences.
Obama was asked about the matter by reporters twice Tuesday. He declined to comment both times.
Gibbs said Obama was aware before he met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the White House on Thursday that the case was under investigation, but the two leaders did not discuss it. Another White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, said Obama did not know the exact timing of the arrests.
The FBI's arrests of 10 Russian spy suspects had to be carried out Sunday partly because one of the defendants was scheduled to leave the United States, according to the Justice Department. But agency spokesman Dean Boyd declined to identify which of the 10 defendants arrested Sunday was planning to exit the United States.
Officials in both countries left the impression that spy rings remain a common way of doing business.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin offered a message of restraint during a meeting at his country residence with former President Bill Clinton, who was in Moscow to speak at an investment conference.
"I understand that back home police are putting people in prison," Putin said, drawing a laugh from Clinton. "That's their job. I'm counting on the fact that the positive trend seen in the relationship will not be harmed by these events."
The administration has made a high priority of improving relations with Russia. Critics say Obama has bent too far backward to accommodate the Russians, with little to show in return.
Stephen Flanagan, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said some Obama critics will point to the spy scandal as evidence of a dual-track Russian approach of offering an outstretched hand while "still trying to pick your pocket" with the other.
At stake in the short term is a newly concluded nuclear arms control deal, dubbed New START, which requires a favorable vote in the U.S. Senate and approval by the Russian legislature.
More broadly, Obama wants to build the foundation for a strategic partnership with Moscow — to increase security and economic and other cooperation with the former Cold War foe.
It was that longer-term goal that the State Department emphasized in reacting to the spy case.
"We were not going to forgo the opportunity to pursue our common interests because there are things we disagreed on," Phil Gordon, the department's top Russia policy official, told reporters.
"I think you should see this spying issue in that context. We feel we have made significant progress in the 18 months that we have been pursuing this different relationship with Russia," Gordon added. "We think we have something to show for it."
By coincidence, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to visit the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia in coming days, as well as Poland. Each of those countries is keenly interested in the direction of U.S.-Russian relations.