Russian state-run media reveled yesterday in embarrassing the US over a botched attempt to recruit one of its intelligence agents, but both countries signaled they wanted to prevent the episode harming efforts to improve relations.
Moscow expelled a US diplomat on Tuesday, saying he had been caught red-handed with disguises, special equipment and wads of cash as he tried to recruit a Russian agent for the CIA.
US Ambassador Michael McFaul spent about 30 minutes at the Russian Foreign Ministry yesterday after being summoned to give an explanation and the ministry said it had issued a formal protest.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin said nothing about the incident, state news channels repeatedly showed footage of the US diplomat, Ryan Fogle, in an incongruous-looking blond wig being pinned to the ground by a Russian undercover agent in a “sting” operation.
The images, highly embarrassing for the US, seemed to be part of efforts to boost Putin’s ratings following his allegations that Washington has stoked protests against him, rather than an attempt to derail relations between the nations.
“It [the attempted recruitment] does not contribute to the future process of strengthening mutual trust between Russia and the United States, and putting our relations on a new level,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Itar-Tass news agency.
However, he avoided inflammatory language over the expulsion of Fogle, a third secretary at the US embassy who was detained late on Monday.
There is little sign that either country wants to go beyond a minimum response as Washington and Moscow try to improve strained relations and bring the warring sides in Syria together for an international peace conference.
In Washington, US Department of State spokesman Patrick Ventrell suggested the episode was unlikely to affect broader US-Russian relations or plans for the Syria conference.
“I’m not sure I would read too much into one incident one way or another,” Ventrell said.
The incident may have been directed more at a domestic Russian audience to rally support among conservative and traditional voters, following protests against Putin by mainly liberal and middle-class voters.
The former KGB spy has also used more blunt tactics against the opposition since the departure of long-term political adviser Vladislav Surkov at the end of 2011 and his replacement by Vyacheslav Volodin, a less sophisticated strategist.
“In the Russian elite, there are influential groups who oppose America and waste no opportunity to spite the United States,” political analyst Pavel Salin said.
State media moved into action quickly after the federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, announced Fogle’s detention.
Television channels soon started showing footage of Fogle’s detention and photographs appeared on the Web showing the diplomat in the blond wig, with props reminiscent of a schoolboy’s spy kit.
A photograph published by the Russia Today channel on its Web site showed two wigs, apparently found on him, as well as three pairs of glasses, a flashlight, a mobile phone and a compass.
Also displayed was a wad of 500 euro (US$650) notes, and a letter printed in Russian and addressed to a “Dear friend” offering US$100,000 if the target cooperated — with the promise of more to come for long-term cooperation.
US-Russian relations had thawed markedly under US President Barack Obama’s first-term “reset” of ties, although they have chilled again since Putin returned to the presidency a year ago.