MOSCOW — U.S. spies under diplomatic cover sneaking along Russia's borders with Europe. Ten thousand dollars and a recruitment letter shoved into a Russian diplomat's car.
Those are just some of the sensational allegations that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov leveled against the United States on Tuesday as he laid out Moscow's case against Washington in the hidden intelligence war. Many of the alleged incidents were previously undisclosed. In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby declined to respond directly to Lavrov’s allegations about trying to turn diplomats into spies.
For months, Russian officials have seethed at accusations that they hacked the U.S. presidential election and were harassing U.S. diplomats in Russia. In a nationally televised news conference, Lavrov fired back, complaining that U.S. Embassy employees in Moscow were disguising themselves to join in Russian opposition protests and that Russian diplomats in the United States were increasingly being targeted for recruitment.
“In the last several years, especially during the Obama administration's term, unfriendly [recruitment attempts] toward our diplomats has grown,” Lavrov said in response to a question about harassment of diplomats during his annual news conference.
Washington has repeatedly complained about the treatment of its diplomats in Russia. A brawl between an embassy employee and a Russian guard caught on tape last year caused a major diplomatic scandal. U.S. officials claimed that the attack was an unprovoked assault while Russia said the man was a CIA officer attempting to sneak into the embassy.
Lavrov on Tuesday said the Russian guard had acted correctly because the man had not provided identification and was wearing a disguise. In another case, he said, a U.S. diplomat had disguised himself as a woman before changing outfits in a public restroom.
“Over the last year or plus, we have seen an increase in harassment of our diplomats,” Kirby told reporters. “You saw the very dramatic video yourself of one of our employees literally being assaulted as he was trying to enter the embassy grounds.”
Kirby said the increased harassment was one reason why President Obama imposed sanctions on some Russians, expelled about 35 Russian diplomats and shut down two large houses the U.S. claims were used in intelligence gathering.
Lavrov implied that U.S. military officials were conducting undercover reconnaissance in Russia, saying that U.S. military attaches “love to travel across our motherland in rented cars,” naming a number of regions on the border with several NATO countries, Ukraine and the Caucasus region. “Accordingly, they don't bear diplomatic license plates, but Russian plates, meaning there is less chance of being noticed.”
U.S. officials have also complained about harassment and surveillance by Russian intelligence in cities across Europe, which reportedly grew worse following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. In Moscow, one military attache's dog was killed, according to multiple former officials citing intelligence reports, and embassy employees have complained about slashed tires and their children being followed to school.
There have also been complaints that Russian officials have been encouraged not to meet with the U.S. ambassador to Russia.
Lavrov brushed these off, saying that the Russian Foreign Ministry had compiled statistics showing that “Russian ministries, agencies, and members of parliament host the U.S. ambassador tens of times more often, than Americans host the ambassador of the Russian Federation.”
He then gave a wide-ranging account of Moscow's complaints about harassment of its diplomats in Washington, including the arrest of Russian military attaches working in the United States as well as recruitment attempts.
One of the cases was previously reported by the ministry's spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova: That U.S. agents had approached a Russian diplomat attempting to buy medicine from a doctor for Yevgeny Primakov, a former Russian foreign minister who died last year, and sought to recruit him.
“To recruit in this kind of situation, one must have a special professional audacity and a deep feeling of cynicism,” Lavrov said.
There were others, he added.
“In April last year, there was an unprecedented [recruiting] attempt on the level of the second [highest-ranking] person in our embassy,” Lavrov said. “The American intelligence agencies made an attempt at recruitment, literally stuck $10,000 in his car while he wasn’t there with a proposal of cooperation.”
The money was turned in, he said, adding that it “is now working for the betterment of the Russian government.”
In what he called a “disgusting episode,” Lavrov said that two employees of the Russian military attache in Washington were detained while having lunch with their spouses, interrogated and denied contact with the Russian Embassy. When the officials were freed, he said, “there was not even an apology.”