Russia protests to U.S. over alleged spy

May 15, 2013

Russia’s capture of a purported U.S. spy made the news for a second day here Wednesday, as the Foreign Ministry handed the U.S. ambassador a formal protest over the affair but otherwise appeared to want to let the matter rest.

The sighting of the ambassador, Michael McFaul, fleeting as it was, provided an opportunity for Russian television to dwell at length on images of unkempt wigs, wads of euros (not dollars) and a compass that officials said they found in the accused spy’s bag of subterfuge.

The coverage, as well as handouts of photos and information by the normally publicity-averse domestic Russian security service, set off speculation that the affair was a calculated attempt to cast Americans as meddling and treacherous. Over the past 18 months, President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of financing both his opponents and nongovernmental organizations that act in the interest of foreigners.

McFaul smiled but said nothing Wednesday as he walked from his official black Cadillac into the Foreign Ministry, a 27-story Stalin-era skyscraper decorated with the hammer and sickle. He and other U.S. officials have been tight-lipped when asked whether Ryan C. Fogle, the alleged spy, was using his job as third political secretary at the U.S. Embassy as cover for his real work as a CIA officer.

The ambassador was at the ministry for about half an hour. After he left, the ministry issued a statement saying that Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had given McFaul a note of protest and that other topics were discussed, as well.

Despite the lurid coverage at home, Russia appeared little inclined to use the incident to damage the broader relationship with the United States.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John F. Kerry appeared side by side at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Sweden and told reporters they had nothing to say on the alleged espionage matter.

“We did not discuss the incident to which you refer,” Lavrov said, before turning the discussion to U.S.-Russian cooperation on a new diplomatic initiative for Syria.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell acknowledged that Russia had declared an embassy employee “persona non grata” and demanded that he leave the country. Ventrell said the United States routinely complies with such requests but would not comment on the specifics of Fogle’s case. The State Department has not publicly identified the employee as Fogle.

Also Wednesday, a Putin aide reiterated his boss’s desire for President Obama to visit Moscow before attending a Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg in September.

The security service, known by its initials FSB, said it caught Fogle late Monday night attempting to recruit a Russian security officer specializing in the North Caucasus, the region that the accused Boston Marathon bombers called their homeland.

Nikolai Kovalyov, a former FSB director, called the Fogle affair a triumph for the service but otherwise minimized its likely consequences. “The Americans do nothing other secret services, including ours, would not do,” he told reporters Wednesday.

Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.

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