Spy scandal just another false reset in Russian-U.S. relations

Russian spy suspects Anna Chapman, Vicky Pelaez, Richard Murphy, Cynthia Murphy and Juan Lazaro, are seen in this courtroom sketch during an appearance at the Manhattan Federal Court in New York June 28, 2010.

WASHINGTON—Cold War melts, warm friends meet. Cold front returns. And melts again. And then another freeze.

The United States and Russia just keep blowing hot and cold, defying the best analytical attempts to take their temperature.

Only Last Friday, things were suddenly searingly good between President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, as they joy-rode from the White House to Ray’s Hell Burger joint in Arlington, Va., to gobble a greasy lunch and sharing fries on the side.

Medvedev later declared the meal, “Not quite healthy — but very tasty.” Obama, beaming, mused that now both men are on Twitter, “we may be able to throw away those red phones that have been sitting around for so long.”

But just as the two shuffled off to Ontario for the G20, the FBI swooped down to nab an alleged Russian spy ring, including a faux-couple living just down the road from Ray’s Hell Burger.

The raids, unveiled late Monday as the result of a multiyear investigation and including charges against 11 people living on the East Coast — four of them claiming to be Canadians — sent Moscow into a fresh fury. On went the ice machines.

“I hope that they will explain. The moment when this was done was chosen with a certain grace,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Jerusalem, where he was on an official visit.

His ministry followed with a statement calling the arrests both “baseless” and “unseemly,” accusing American prosecutors of acting “in the spirit of the spy passions of the Cold War period.”

“We would like to note only that this type of release of information has happened more than once in the past, when our relations were on the rise,” the statement said. “In any case, it is deeply regrettable that all this is taking place on the background of the ‘reset’ in Russian-American relations declared by the Untied States administration itself.”

It was not the first false reset for the Obama administration. In May, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her first trip to Moscow, actually handed Lavrov a gift button emblazoned with the “Reset,” which they pressed together in front of the television cameras.

But much to the Americans’ chagrin and the Russian media’s delight, the word was misspelled — it was marked peregruzka, meaning “overload,” rather than perezagruzka for “reset.” The Russian daily Kommersant ran a front-page photo with the headline, “Sergey Lavrov and Hillary Clinton pushed the wrong button.”

Today in Washington, administration officials have not yet signalled their views on the severity and staying power of chill surrounding the spy scandal. One leaked quote from an unnamed White House aide indicates Obama was unhappy about the timing of the arrests but acquiesced when FBI officials pressed for immediate raids amid concerns some of the suspects would flee.

Other intelligence analysts noted the absence of espionage charges against those in custody — suggesting that while deeply rooted, the ring had yet to penetrate and deliver information that would do lasting damage.

More telling will be how — or whether — the spy flap plays against the larger backdrop of mutually beneficial moves agreed to last week during the lighthearted encounter between Obama and Medvedev. Then, Obama pledged strong U.S. support for Russia’s quest to join the World Trade Organization, while Russia offered a range of gestures, including improved co-operation on the transport of supplies to the war in Afghanistan and the lifting of a ban on poultry imports from the U.S.

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