Russia, US try to limit spy scandal damage

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Russia and the United States sought Wednesday to cool a heated scandal sparked by the arrest of 11 suspected Kremlin spies, amid fears the Cold War-style furore could harm improving ties.

The White House declined to explicitly condemn Russia after the arrests, while Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin refrained from any sabre-rattling and instead expressed hope that bilateral ties would not be harmed.

A leading Russian newspaper reported meanwhile that Russian officials had even been ordered to keep quiet on on the situation to avoid inflaming tensions further.

The US Justice Department said Monday that 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.

Police in Cyprus arrested an 11th suspect, 54-year-old Christopher Metsos, who was picked up trying to board a flight on Tuesday to Budapest after immigration officers discovered his name on a stop list.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was repeatedly goaded in his daily briefing to condemn Russia over the alleged spies, but styled the operation as solely a "law enforcement" matter.

The State Department meanwhile styled the episode as a remnant of the Cold War covert intelligence struggle between spymasters in Moscow and Washington that would not have a lasting impact on ties.

"We're moving towards a more trusting relationship. We're beyond the Cold War; our relations absolutely demonstrate that," said Phil Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European Affairs.

"But I don't think anyone was hugely shocked to know that some vestiges of old attempts to use intelligence are still there."

The scandal remains a major embarrassment for the White House and the Kremlin, not least because it broke just days after US President Barack Obama met his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev for a summit.

The White House said Obama knew the FBI was closing in on the 11 alleged spies when he met Medvedev at the summit -- which was marked by jolly bonhomie and a chummy burger bar trip -- although he did not mention it.

Ex-KGB agent Putin -- who by an odd coincidence was meeting former US president Bill Clinton in Moscow late on Tuesday -- was critical of the arrests but said he hoped they would not impact on 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."

Quoting a diplomatic source, Kommersant said Russia's "eloquent speakers" -- talkative mid-ranking officials who often speak on such issues -- had been ordered to refrain from making public comments so as not to fan the flames.

The intriguing nature of the case, in particular the emergence of Anna Chapman, 28, as a flame-haired tabloid femme fatale, has electrified the media and drawn comparisons to the heyday of Cold War espionage.

Criminal complaints stretching to 37 pages feature tales of false identities, buried money and hidden video cameras that read like 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.

But Russian media poured scorn on the scandal, with newspapers fuming that the affair had been trumped up by elements inside the United States bent on discrediting Obama's policy of reconciliation with Russia.

"The highest-profile Russia spy scandal in the United States looks like the most unconvincing and most unnecessary," said Kommersant.

Tvoi Den, one of Russia's most popular tabloid newspapers, added: "US special services let their president down conducting the silliest operation to capture sham Russian spies."

© 2010 AFP

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