Russian Spies Case: There Goes the 'Reset' of US-Russia Relations?

Article excerpt

Actually, there could be limited fallout from the Russian spies case, some international experts say. For the most part, however, the ball is in Russia's court now.

Is that President Obama having lunch with a Russian spy?

No, silly, that's Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he's with. The Russian spies live down the street.

As it turns out, that fictional dialogue could have occurred last week at Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Va. But who knew, when Mr. Obama took his Russian counterpart to his favorite hamburger joint in northern Virginia last Thursday, that the Federal Bureau of Investigation would soon be breaking up an alleged Russian spy ring that included three Arlington residents.

With the arrest Sunday of 10 East Coast residents (an 11th was arrested Tuesday in Cyprus and released on bail) on charges of conspiring to act as undeclared agents of a foreign government, one might assume: So there goes the vaunted "reset" of US-Russia relations, right?

Actually, probably not.

"I'd expect the diplomatic fallout from this to be fairly limited," says Paul Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center in Washington. "These cases in the past have tended to blow over unless someone wants to make a big issue of it, and it doesn't seem in this case that anyone in the administration really does."

The big question now will be what, if any, "issue" the Russian government will make of the case.

"The ball is really in the Russians' court now," says Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "The Obama people have de-linked the issue from the broader relationship," she adds, "but we'll have to wait and see if the Russians essentially do the same or if it will be a return to a kind of cold-war, tit-for-tat response."

Why the Obama de-link?

For one thing, Obama has invested heavily in his personal rapport with Mr. Medvedev, and the White House lists improved relations with Russia as one of the president's foreign-policy accomplishments. Obama seems unlikely to jeopardize the progress he's made with the Russians on issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to Iran over a still-murky but essentially rinky-dink spy operation (at least from what is known so far from the federal complaint filed Monday).

Here's an example, as described in the complaint: When a man in one of the alleged "spy couples" told his cohort (as caught by wiretap) that his Russian employers were disappointed that he failed to list a source for the information he'd provided, she advised, "Put down any politician from here! …