Russia angrily denounced the U.S. arrest of alleged Russian spies as “baseless” and a throwback to the Cold War even as experts ridiculed the charges against the “spies” as a bundle of incongruities.
The U.S. Department of Justice said on Monday they had broken what was described as a deeply-embedded spy ring of 11 agents who allegedly spied for Russia for up to a decade. Ten “spies” were arrested on Sunday and Monday and the 11th was detained on Tuesday in Cyprus.
The Russian Foreign Ministry described the allegations as “baseless” and pursuing “unseemly aims”.
In a statement posted on its website on Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry said the incident was “in the spirit of Cold War-era spy stories.”
“It is deeply regrettable that such things happen in the backdrop of a ‘reset' in Russian-American relations declared by the U.S. Administration,” the Russian statement said.
The Foreign Ministry said the arrested were Russian nationals who had gone to the U.S. over a period of time and “have not perpetrated any actions detrimental to the interests of the U.S.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demanded explanations and mocked as “elegant” the timing of the arrests that came a few days after the Russian and U.S. Presidents held a summit in Washington.
The arrests were made on Sunday and Monday in Boston, New York, New Jersey and Virginia, the Department of Justice said. The suspected spies, dubbed the “Illegals”, were allegedly tasked by the Russian intelligence agency SVR to enter the U.S. and carry out espionage activities, infiltrating U.S. policy-making circles .
However, the alleged spies have not been charged with espionage. Instead they stand accused of “conspiring to act as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation within the United States”. Nine also face charges of “conspiracy to commit money laundering”.
Russian intelligence experts dismissed the U.S. allegations as a heap of rubbish.
“Any professional would greet with Homeric laughter a story of an 11-member group of illegal agents working all together, exchanging encrypted Morse code messages, engaging in money laundering and digging up money buried in bottles in parks,” said Russian MP Nikolai Kovalyov, former head of the FSB, successor to the Soviet-era KBG security service. “It's a cheap detective story not worthy of Agatha Christie.”
Experts ridiculed some bizarre details in the court papers, such as “spies” taking a fake passport or money from undercover agent in order to pass them on to other “spies”.
Intelligence veterans were particularly amused by a decrypted message allegedly sent from Moscow to two of the accused in 2009 sets out their mission in the U.S.:
“You were sent to USA for long-term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc — all these serve one goal: fulfil your main missions, i.e. to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels to Center.”
Political analysts said the spy scandal was a provocation against U.S. President Barack Obama and his warming relations with Russia.
“The spy scandal has been timed to disrupt the ratification of the U.S.-Russian START nuclear arms pact and the Russian bid to join the World Trade Organisation,” said Alexander Oznobishchev of the Institute of Strategic Analysis.