Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 58

Relations between Russia and the United States have begun more and more to emulate the path of the Mir space station; that is, after a long period in which bilateral ties suffered a slow but steady loss of altitude they seem, after the start of a major spy row yesterday, to be on the verge of a sudden and precipitous plunge. The Russians, of course, have planned (however badly) Mir’s demise, and were hoping last night that its destruction upon entering the earth’s atmosphere would be complete enough to eliminate the chance of any major damage caused by falling debris. Plunging Russian-U.S. relations, on the other hand, while unlikely to suffer such complete devastation, may nevertheless produce some destructive debris of their own before again stabilizing. The level at which that stabilization occurs will be clearer only after Moscow responds with a tit-for-tat expulsion order of its own in response to what is reported to be the planned expulsion of some fifty Russian diplomat-spies from the United States. According to reports out of Washington yesterday, the U.S. State Department has ordered the immediate expulsion of four or five Russian diplomats–all of whom were reportedly directly involved in running accused U.S. spy Robert Philip Hanssen–and that list of expulsions is expected soon to be expanded to about fifty. Russian officialdom, meanwhile, condemned the U.S. move and vowed to respond immediately and in kind. This morning, its Foreign Ministry announced that it was doing just that. According to unconfirmed reports, four members of the U.S. embassy in Moscow will soon be asked to leave, with some some forty more to follow in the next several months (AP, March 23).

But while the magnitude of the spy scandal is grabbing many of the headlines, the more important story–from Moscow’s perspective at least–may be that at least some Russian observers are looking at the expulsions as a potential watershed event in Russian-U.S. relations more generally. That is, Russian officialdom had taken note of the more confrontational language used with regard to Russian-U.S. relations by Governor George W. Bush during his presidential campaign, and it has sometimes responded testily to the U.S. administration’s pointed aloofness since Bush’s inauguration. But despite obvious deep differences between the two countries on such important issues as strategic missile defense, Russian-Iranian arms and nuclear dealing, and UN policy toward Iraq, not to mention a series of remarks critical of Moscow’s proliferation record from top Bush administration officials, Moscow seemed still to be holding on to the hope that relations between the two countries would eventually return to something close to the status quo which existed before the change in U.S. administrations.

That may still happen, but the Kremlin is likely to feel less certain of it in the wake of yesterday’s events. Suddenly some in Moscow seem to have toted up a series of recent events and reached the conclusion that relations between Moscow and Washington are in for a truly rocky period. Those recent events include not only the expulsion order in all its reported magnitude, but also recent Bush administration moves to arrange a meeting with a top Chechen rebel official and a lengthy interview given by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to a British newspaper. In the interview Rumsfeld repeated in very blunt terms his earlier charge that Russia is a major proliferator of dangerous military technologies, while Wolfowitz said that the Russians “seem to be willing to sell anything to anyone for money” (British Sunday Telegraph, March 18). The comments made in the interview drew an angry response from Moscow.

The Kremlin-connected web site Strana.ru, meanwhile, carried a commentary yesterday which appeared to sum up Moscow’s new suspicions in the wake of yesterday’s events. With respect to the spy scandal itself, the commentator suggested that the Kremlin would have had few real objections if Washington had chosen to expel a handful of Russian diplomats in response to the arrest of Hanssen, the FBI counterintelligence officer accused of having spied for Moscow since 1985. That, the commentator suggested, would have been seen as business as usual and would have ensured that the matter stayed between the two espionage agencies. But the decision by Washington to run dozens of Russian diplomats out of the United States was something entirely different, the commentator said. Particularly when taken together with other confrontational moves by Washington, it suggested that the Bush administration was using the spy row deliberately in order to torpedo friendly relations with Russia. The White House has decided to undertake “openly anti-Russian actions, which are absolutely not conducive to harmonizing and developing bilateral Russian-American relations,” the commentary argues. It also charges Washington with “again playing the ‘Russian card,’ all the more so because Moscow under [President Vladimir] Putin has begun to conduct its own, independent and self-sufficient foreign policy” (Strana.ru, March 22).

The Russian Foreign Ministry used this same sort of language in a statement reportedly given to CNN last night. In condemning the U.S. expulsion of Russian diplomats, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov accused Washington of engaging in a “hostile” act–one which would result in the expulsion of U.S. diplomats from Russia. Ivanov also accused the United States of committing another “explicitly unfriendly act” by announcing that the highly placed Chechen official would be invited to Washington. The invitation raises “questions about the true motives of the American side,” the Russian Foreign Ministry statement said (New York Times News Service, March 23).

If there was any irony to be found among yesterday’s tumultuous developments, it appeared to come in remarks made by Sergei Prikhodko, a top foreign policy aide to the Russian president. In providing the Kremlin’s first reaction to the announcement that Russian diplomats would be expelled, he complained to reporters that “any campaigns of spy mania or searches for an enemy are only worthy of deep regret and are a relapse into the Cold War era” (Reuters, March 22). Russian human rights activists have of course used precisely this same term–“spy mania”–to describe the anti-Western hysteria which the security services in Russia have whipped up since Vladimir Putin’s assumption of the Russian presidency. Indeed, former KGB spies, including Putin himself, now dominate the Russian government. And they appear to have made a linchpin of their domestic policies the very Cold War-style “campaigns of spy mania” and “searches for an enemy” which Prikhodko claimed to lament yesterday.