By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 29, 2010; 11:47 AM
MOSCOW -- Russia's Foreign Ministry condemned the arrests of 10 alleged Russian spies in the United States, calling them baseless Tuesday, and senior lawmakers suggested they had stemmed from a conspiracy in the U.S. government to undermine President Obama's efforts to improve relations with Moscow.
Without saying directly whether the suspects were Russian agents, the Foreign Ministry criticized the U.S. Justice Department's decision "to make a public statement in the spirit of the spy novel intrigues of the Cold War era" and noted that "these kinds of incidents have occurred in the past when our relations were on the rise."
"Such actions are ungrounded and pursue improper goals," the ministry said in a statement. "In any case, it is regrettable that all this is happening against the background of the 'reset' in Russian-American relations announced by the U.S. administration."
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking to reporters in Jerusalem, questioned the timing of the arrests, which occurred just days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Washington and went out for cheeseburgers with Obama to highlight improved ties between the two governments.
"They haven't explained to us what it's all about. I hope they will. The timing, though, was chosen with particular sophistication," Lavrov said.
The arrests received wide coverage in the Russian news media, with several members of parliament ridiculing the American description of a "deep-cover" espionage ring and expressing suspicion about its sudden exposure after Medvedev's visit.
"This strongly resembles a struggle of opposition forces against President Obama," said Gennady Gudkov, a lawmaker and former official in the FSB, the main domestic successor to the Soviet-era KGB. "It is absolutely obvious that the U.S. president is under fire by the anti-Russia lobby, which doesn't want our bilateral relations to improve."
Mikhail Lyubimov, a writer and former member of the SVR, the intelligence agency alleged to have been behind the spy operation, said operatives who go undercover as ordinary citizens -- known as "illegals" because they work without a diplomatic cover that gives them immunity from prosecution -- are never deployed or managed in groups.
"It sounds preposterous to me. . . . We've never used illegals like this, and it's a comedy to have ten of them connected," he said. "I'm not even sure we have illegals now. It's very expensive."
Lyubimov said he believed the FBI manufactured the case to burnish its image, and noted that the suspects had not been charged with espionage. "The political aim is clear," he said. "The gist is clear, which is that the Russians are scoundrels, they continue to spy, and all the agreements between Obama and Medvedev are fake."
Nikolai Kovalyov, a former director of the FSB in the parliament, questioned whether those arrested were even Russian citizens and mocked the FBI's assertion that the agents kept money buried in a field as "total nonsense and a cheap detective story," arguing that there were far easier ways to transfer money safely.
"I think that certain technicians are trying to infect the U.S. president's reset program with some destructive virus," he said. "Certainly, it cannot be a simple coincidence that this group of exposed Russian spies was arrested immediately after the visit of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev."
But Yevgenia Albats, editor of the independent New Times magazine, said talk of a conspiracy to poison bilateral relations was Russia's version of an official denial. "What else are they going to say? They caught these guys red-handed," she said. "You never acknowledge your own spies, because you don't want to support the foreign justice system in bringing charges."
Calling the case "very plausible," she asked why the authorities would organize such an elaborate operation to collect what seems to have been basic information. For example, she noted that two of the suspects appeared to have been targeting university professors who easily could have been invited to conferences in Russia.
"It's very strange. You pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to put these people through college, give them identities, to do what?" she said. "Why do governments spend this money on intelligence when journalists can do it better?"
Alexander Golts, a military analyst, said the details that have been disclosed thus far are baffling because they portray the suspects violating the most basic rules of tradecraft. If the allegations are true, he said, it would mean "a total and absolute lack of professionalism in Russian intelligence circles."
Asked if that was possible, he said: "Everything is possible in this country."