In the inside lingo of professional diplomats, “ping” is the sound made when a government declares an envoy persona non grata. The Russian Embassy in Washington went ping last week like a Game Boy gone berserk. The United States sent fifty-one diplomats packing in the wake of the arrest of spy suspect Robert Hanssen. But other than the expected retaliation in kind–the promised expulsion of a similar number of American diplomats–the Kremlin seems uncertain how to react.

Russian rhetoric is muddy. The semi-official Strana.ru website published commentary accusing the White House of “openly anti-Russian actions” that display Washington’s irritation with Russia’s “independent and self-sufficient foreign policy.” A Kremlin foreign-policy advisor tut-tutted about American “spy mania,” and “a relapse into the Cold-War era.” The foreign minister called the expulsions a “hostile” act. But President Vladimir Putin took care to say the spy flap should have no “major consequences.”

That is surely his desire. For all of Russia’s own Soviet and Cold War nostalgia (ex-agent Putin, for example, always speaks fondly of the salad days of his spyhood), the Kremlin understands fully that good relations with the United States and the West are essential to Russia’s chances for economic development. If the United States downgrades the bilateral relationship, Russia may be the loser.