Putin hopes US-Russia ties untouched by spy scandal

29th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

Russia bristled Tuesday at US claims that it had smashed a Cold War-style Russian spy ring as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin expressed hope the scandal would not damage improving bilateral relations.

The US Justice Department said 10 "deep-cover" suspects, accused of infiltrating US policymaking for the Kremlin, had been detained on suspicion of seeking details of US nuclear weapons and foreign policy.

Moscow admitted that Russian citizens had been arrested but the foreign ministry denied they had "committed any kind of actions directed against the interests of the United States."

Former KGB spy Putin -- who by an odd coincidence was meeting former US president Bill Clinton in Moscow -- said he hoped the arrests would not impact the recent improvement in Russia-US ties.

"You came at the right time. Your police have let themselves go, and put people in prison," Putin told his American visitor in comments broadcast on state television, using his trademark earthy language.

"I expect that the positive tendency in relations over the last years is not harmed. We very much hope that people who value good relations understand this."

Five of the accused appeared in court in New York on Monday, while according to US documents, the spy ring had been under FBI surveillance for a decade.

The arrests Sunday in four northeastern US states came only three days after President Barack Obama described his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev as a "solid and reliable partner" at a White House summit.

"We do not understand the reasons that prompted the US Justice Department to come forward with a public announcement in the spirit of 'spy sensations' of the Cold War era," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demanded an explanation of the charges. "The moment when it was done has been chosen with a special finesse," he said, with apparent sarcasm during a visit to Jerusalem.

Russia-US ties have over the last months been marked by a public warmth unprecedented over the last years with Medvedev and Obama even sharing an outing to a burger diner during their summit.

The case harks back to Cold War hostilities with the use of false identities and tales of buried money and hidden video cameras that read like the pages of a spy novel.

"You were sent to USA for long-term service trip," read a message decrypted by the FBI and said to be from the Moscow headquarters of the SVR intelligence service, a successor to the Communist-era KGB.

"Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. -- all these serve one goal: fulfil your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policy-making circles in US and send intel to C (Moscow Centre)."

Details emerged about the individuals accused of operating deep under cover for the SVR, with much of the focus on a flame-haired Russian woman called Anna Chapman.

While other suspects blended seamlessly and quietly into suburban American society like Richard and Cynthia Murphy in Montclair, New Jersey, Chapman was a high-flying New Yorker with a multi-million-dollar real estate business.

Fitting the bill of the femme fatale, the 28-year-old's Facebook picture was already being plastered on the front-page of the New York tabloids.

According to the charge sheet, Chapman had been leading a double life as a spy since January, going to coffee shops and transferring sensitive information to her Russian handler via her laptop to his passing van.

Britain and Ireland are also investigating reports that fake British and Irish passports were used by members of the alleged spy ring, officials in London and Dublin said.

Judge James Cott ordered five suspects that appeared in court Monday in New York to remain in custody until a July 27 preliminary hearing. A bail hearing was set for Thursday.

The other suspects were set to appear before courts in Virginia and Massachusetts.

A key eleventh suspect, named as Canadian Christopher Robert Metsos, 54, was arrested by Cypriot police at Larnaca airport as he prepared to board an early-morning flight to Budapest, officials said.

Metsos had been under surveillance in Queens, New York in May 2004 when he received a bag of money from an official associated with Russia's UN mission, the complaint alleges.

He was released on 20,000 euros (24,400 dollars) bail to await extradition, the Cypriot authorities said.

© 2010 AFP

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