Russia has expelled Israel’s military attache at its Moscow embassy on “unfounded” spying allegations, the Israeli military said on Wednesday, in a case that media say has officials in Jerusalem puzzled.
“The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] military attache and ministry of defense representative in Russia, an IDF colonel, was detained for investigation last week by Russian authorities on suspicion of spying,” the Israeli Ministry of Defense said.
The statement did not name the man, who it said had been due to complete his posting in two months.
“Security authorities in Israel completed a thorough investigation and concluded that these claims were unfounded,” it added.
Military sources identified him as Colonel Vadim Leiderman and said he returned to Israel several days ago after being questioned by Russian authorities over espionage allegations and then being told to leave the country immediately.
Israel’s state-run Channel One television station said he was arrested while sitting at a cafe with a Russian.
“He was suspected by the Russians of running several local residents,” the network said. “He was taken in for questioning in Moscow about 10 days ago, the police asked him some questions. Because of his diplomatic immunity, they were not able to do more, but he was asked to immediately leave the country and he did so.”
It said that in Israel he was “cleared of all suspicion” after interrogation by his military superiors and by agents of the Shin Bet security agency.
Ynet, the Web site of top-selling Israeli daily Yediot Aharanot, said Leiderman “maintains that the allegations are baseless and false, and that the entire incident is rooted in a misunderstanding.”
“The past few days have seen hectic efforts by Israel to appease Moscow and stop the already grave diplomatic incident from escalating further, but the Russians seem adamant to exhaust all the legal measures at their disposal against the officer. Israel has substantial political and security interests in Russia, and is now concentrating on damage control,” Ynet said.
Israeli media reported the incident occurred during visit to Moscow by the Israeli parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
“Sources in Israel said that the reason for the expulsion was not yet clear and that they had not received a detailed explanation from the Russians,” Ynet said.
Israel daily Haaretz’s Web site said Leiderman “was arrested during a May 12 meeting, in what appeared to be a violation of his diplomatic immunity.”
Leiderman was born in the Soviet Union, speaks fluent Russian, holds a doctorate in engineering and is an air force technical expert, it said, adding he spent several years as an air force representative in the US.
“Israeli officials found it hard to explain the motivation for the arrest, estimating that it might have had its source in a power struggle between various Russian security services,” Haaretz added.
On a visit to Moscow in March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to persuade Russia to scale down its nuclear cooperation with Iran and its arms sales to Syria, both seen in Israel as strategic threats.
Russia is a key supplier of arms to the Arab world and has agreed to send a large shipment of anti-ship Yakhont cruise missiles to Syria — a country still technically at war with Israel.