Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin’s visit to the United States unfolded amid a minor tempest over the scope of Moscow’s espionage operations in the United States. The “Washington Times” published a report on July 26 claiming that the Clinton administration has quietly asked Moscow to voluntarily reduce the number of intelligence agents it has working in the United States. Citing unnamed administration officials, the American newspaper said that the U.S. ambassador to Russia, James Collins, had recently raised the issue with Vladimir Putin, the Secretary of Russia’s Security Council and the director of the country’s Federal Security Service (FSB). Collins and–in a separate telephone call–White House National Security Adviser Samuel Berger had reportedly warned Putin that a failure by Russia to comply would compel Washington to reduce the number of Russian diplomats in the United States or to expel Russian intelligence personnel operating in the country. The “Times” article had said that about half of the Russian diplomatic staff in Seattle and San Francisco work for Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
A spokeswoman for the SVR yesterday refused to comment directly on the “Washington Times” story, but charged that U.S. intelligence operations in Russia outstrip those of Moscow in the United States. She also said that U.S. intelligence has easy access to some CIS countries and intimated that Washington spies on Russia from those locations. An unnamed “expert” from the SVR, meanwhile, was quoted by a Russian source yesterday as saying that the “Washington Times” article was published specifically to coincide with Stepashin’s visit to the United States and to complicate his talks with U.S. officials (Reuters, Russian agencies, July 27).
This week’s spy talk follows on the heels of other intelligence-related incidents which have occurred between Russia and the United States this summer. On July 3 U.S. officials announced that an American military attache was ordered to leave Russia on allegations of spying. Lieutenant Colonel Peter Hoffman was an assistant army attache at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and had participated in the Russian-U.S. negotiations that led to an agreement on Russia’s peacekeeping role in Kosovo. Reports at the time were divided on whether Hoffman had been expelled in retaliation for similar moves made earlier by the U.S. government against two Russian agents operating in the United States, or whether his expulsion reflected Moscow’s unhappiness over its role in Kosovo (New York Times, AP, July 4; Novye izvestia, July 7).
Shortly thereafter, moreover, Russian authorities accused an American woman of gathering materials on Russian defense factories in the Voronezh region and of passing the information on to the CIA. The woman, who had been living in the Voronezh region for two years on a university exchange program, departed Russia on June 23 and was told that she could not return. According to one Russian source, the American had been particularly interested in the environmental situation around Russian defense plants in Voronezh (AP, Russian agencies, July 8; Izvestia, July 15).
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