The Obama administration responded cautiously to the very public detention, then release by Russian authorities, of an American diplomat accused of spying in Moscow, saying that the U.S. remains committed to close relations with Russia and downplaying the possibility of retaliation against Russian intelligence agents in the U.S.
“We can confirm that an officer at our U.S. Embassy in Moscow was briefly detained and was released,” said State Department deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell when peppered with questions about the case Tuesday.
With distinctly Cold War-era flair, Russian State Television aired footage on Monday night of a man Russian officials claimed was an undercover agent of the CIA being paraded around in the custody of Russia’s Federal Security Service. The timing and highly publicized handling of the case were seen as a clear message to Washington by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy.
The case comes after a lengthy diplomatic effort by the Obama administration to “reset” troubled relations with Russia yielded relatively few tangible signs of progress.
A posting on the website of Russia’s Foreign Ministry identified the man as Ryan Fogle and claimed he had been arrested while posing as an employee of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and trying to recruit a Russian secret service agent to work clandestinely for the U.S.
Western news outlets quickly identified Mr. Fogle as the third secretary at the embassy in Moscow. Russian authorities said he was wearing a blond wig at the time of his arrest and was carrying special technical equipment, handwritten instructions of some kind and a large sum of cash.
The Foreign Ministry said it had declared Mr. Fogle “persona non grata” and handed him over to U.S. authorities in Moscow on orders to leave the country immediately.
The State Department refused to confirm anything about the case, including Mr. Fogle’s identity.
“We’ve seen the Russian Foreign Ministry announcement, and we have no further comment at this time,” Mr. Ventrell said.
There was speculation in Washington over the extent to which Russia may be using the case as a tool to stir unease in the Obama administration after the relatively warm reception Secretary of State John F. Kerry received on a visit to Moscow earlier this month.
But Mr. Ventrell downplayed the notion that the case would have any measurable impact on U.S.-Russian relations, particularly with regard to perceived progress between the two nations on the issue of Syria’s civil war.
“I’m not sure I’d read too much into one incident one way or another,” said Mr. Ventrell, who noted that Mr. Kerry was slated to meet Tuesday night with Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov in Sweden.
The meeting was expected to follow up on Mr. Kerry’s recent Moscow visit, with a focus on apparently growing U.S.-Russian cooperation over the parameters and timing of a possible international conference on the Syrian crisis.
Russia is a longtime ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and considered by many in the West to have actively impeded international efforts to force Mr. Assad from power.
Recent history, meanwhile, seems to suggest an element of triangulation at play in Tuesday’s spy case — if only to steer attention away from the sudden warming of U.S.-Russian relations on the Syria issue. While it is not clear which side may be doing the steering, spy cases have a habit of popping into the headlines after public displays of affection between U.S. and Russian leaders.
It was just a few days after a warm 2010 visit between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Mr. Obama — the two men ate cheeseburgers together in a Washington restaurant — that U.S. authorities announced charges against 11 undercover Russian agents living in the United States.
That case was resolved rapidly by a quid pro quo deal in which the agents were handed back to Moscow in exchange for the release of four individuals who had been jailed by Russian authorities.
Mr. Ventrell, when asked whether a similar exchange might be in the works with regard to Tuesday’s arrest in Moscow, said, “This is something that happened overnight. I don’t have any information about reciprocity or anything to provide here.”