State Department Plays Down Fallout From Spy Case

Associated Press + More

Spying has often produced pockmarks on the face of U.S.-Russian relations, even in the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The full dimensions of the latest case are yet to be made public, but the charges against the 11 suspects do not include espionage, and it was unclear what — if any — U.S. government secrets they managed to collect or transmit to Moscow.

The suspects allegedly assumed fake names and sought to obtain insights to U.S. government policymaking in ways that could benefit Russia.

Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the matter is likely to blow over quickly, in part because the suspects are not high-value agents and appear to have accomplished little.

"The stakes for both sides are pretty small here," Sestanovich said.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, said the spy ring was "classic KGB style" in which the Russian intelligence service would plant moles and "hope that they will produce something years and maybe even decades later."

"They're trying to get someone into a position of influence, where someone becomes the friend of, let's say, the president of a think tank who may become a Cabinet member in next administration," Riedel said. "And then you have someone who not only can ask that Cabinet member questions, but might be able to influence what they're doing."

Leon Aron, the top Russia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, saw little chance of further diplomatic fallout in Washington or Moscow.

"I think they'll shrug it off," he said.

Andrew Kuchins, the top Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, took a similar view.

"My guess is that like most spy scandals this is going to blow over," Kuchins said.

Some analysts said they expected Moscow to consider some form of retaliation.

"There is never a good time for these things, but I am not surprised that Russian espionage continues," said David Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration and now a Russia analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "The Russians are going to respond and retaliate and that will determine what happens from here."

Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaugher of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and an observer of Russian political currents, said there is great suspicion about the timing of the arrests, coming shortly after Obama's friendly meeting with Medvedev.

"The timing seemed too convenient for the conservative forces on both sides," she said in a telephone interview from Moscow. "So there are all these conspiracies here running around: The Americans pushed it, the KGB pushed it, the reset will go to hell."

She was referring to the Obama administration's efforts to "reset" relations with Russia after a period of tensions, particularly following Russia's armed invasion of Georgia in August 2008.

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