Spy climate: Chilly, but not cold
LONDON, England (CNN) -- When spies are sent packing, the first casualty of U.S.-Russian relations is usually diplomatic restraint.
Hours before news broke of the U.S. decision to order more than 40 Russian diplomats out of Washington -- the biggest mass expulsion since 1986 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin was downplaying strains in the bilateral relationship.
"Let me reiterate, I wouldn't want to overdramatise anything here," Putin told Russian newspaper reporters on Wednesday, in a retrospective interview ahead of his first anniversary in power this Sunday.
He added: "We have disagreements (with the U.S.) on several aspects of international life, most importantly, security issues" but "we are counting on a positive dialogue with our American partners."
By Thursday afternoon in Moscow, the Kremlin's conciliatory tone had turned a bit more shrill.
"Any campaigns of spymania or searches for an enemy are only worthy of deep regret and are a relapse into the Cold War era," said Sergei Prikhodko, a Putin foreign policy adviser, in remarks picked up by Russia's Interfax news agency.
The expulsions are technically the aftermath of last month's arrest by U.S. officials of a 25-year FBI agent, Robert Hanssen, accused of spying for the Soviet Union, and then Russia, for 15 years.
But they come against a backdrop of growing irritants in U.S.-Russia relations which, taken together, suggest a chilling of relations between the former Soviet-era adversaries as they seek a new strategic footing.
'We've always had dips'
Spy shenanigans and finger-wagging rhetoric have been staples of U.S.-Russian relations for decades, to be sure.
Recent misunderstandings - such as Russian differences with the U.S. over the 1999 Kosovo campaign, the Chechen war and NATO expansion - have been treated in the context of a generally improving relationship.
There are doubts whether that is still the case.
"We've always had dips (in the relationship), even during the Yeltsin period, but there are so many things coming together now," said Stephan de Spiegelire, a senior policy analyst at RAND Europe, based in the Netherlands.
De Spiegelire does not see the makings of a Cold War comeback in the latest machinations between Russia and the United States.
Rather, he discerns a fundamental rethinking of priorities in both countries. On both sides, he says, there has been a shift towards greater pragmatism in foreign policy, accompanied by a downgrading of the importance each country attaches to the other in the diplomatic pecking order.
"They are willing to play hardball on certain issues, but they don't want to take it so far that it will lead to a collapse in the relationship … there is an upper threshold to how far they will allow it to go." He notes a recent goodwill visit by Sergei Ivanov, head of Russia's national security council, to Washington.
For Putin, the realignment is most evident in his overtures to Western Europe, where he has pitched a joint European missile shield as a strategic alternative to the U.S. project.
Putin has also paid personal visits to former Soviet-era allies such as Cuba, Vietnam, Mongolia and China, part of a broader strategy to reassert Russian influence on the global stage.
In a move that riled U.S. officials, Putin and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami agreed in Moscow earlier this month to step up trade in conventional weapons and nuclear energy cooperation.
Ongoing sparring match
The pact was the first of its kind between the countries since Iran's Islamic revolution of 1979. It followed earlier statements by Tehran's ambassador to Moscow that his country could buy up to $7 billion in weapons from Russia in coming years, giving a much-needed boost to Russia's beleaguered defence industry.
Prikhodko's "Cold War" comment on Thursday was but the latest volley in an ongoing rhetorical sparring match between Washington and Moscow.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Russia last weekend of abetting the spread of banned weapons to nations with shady credentials.
Russia, meanwhile, denounced on Thursday as an "explicitly unfriendly act" a U.S. plan to meet a rebel envoy from the separatist province of Chechnya.
Russia has refused to recognise the envoy, Ilyas Akhmadov, nominally Chechnya's foreign minister. The republic has fiercely resisted Russian attempts to stamp out a rebel insurgency.
In his otherwise conciliatory interview Wednesday, Putin took exception to plans by the new U.S. administration of George W. Bush to build a national missile defence shield that would obliterate incoming enemy missiles from the safe remove of outer space.
Russia contends the shield would violate the terms of the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty, signed by both countries. A Bush administration official recently dubbed the treaty "ancient history."
Mark Galeotti, a Russian specialist at Keele University, in England, notes that for all their talk of post-Cold War rapprochement, Moscow has been actively ramping up its intelligence activities in Washington since the mid-1990s, when Yeltsin reversed an early policy of cutbacks.
"I regard Putin as a symptom of a general shift away from the original sense that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow and Washington were going to construct a more harmonious relationship," Galeotti said.
More than anything, Galeotti said Putin and Bush are "being tested and testing themselves."
"Putin is an intensely pragmatic man, not an ideologue," he said. "He will push as far as he can and, similarly, Bush clearly wants to show his own strengths and his political machismo."
Reuters contributed to this report.
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