Moscow/Washington, Jun 30 (DPA): The arrest in the US of 10 individuals accused of spying on Russia’s behalf has sparked strong denials in Moscow, but Washington played down the prospect of a diplomatic rift between the two countries.
The Russian foreign ministry confirmed that the arrested included Russian citizens, but insisted that there was no wrong doing and that US interests were not affected.
"They had taken no action which harmed the interests of the US," the ministry said on its website Tuesday.
US authorities announced Monday that they had arrested 10 people in the eastern US Sunday on charges of illegally acting as foreign agents. Most of them also face money laundering charges. An eleventh suspect was arrested in Cyprus.
The justice department said the group, which includes four couples, had been operating under "deep cover" for up to 20 years and had been trying to gain contacts through which information could be garnered and sent back to Russia.
The New York Times reported the individuals were trying to glean information about atomic weapons, US policy on Iran and CIA leadership. US officials said they were in discussions with their Russian counterparts on the issue and were unaware that Russia had plans to retaliate.
The arrests came days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met with US President Barack Obama. The leaders pledged to intensify economic cooperation after a year of progress on security issues.
Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon told reporters that the US will continue working closely with the Russian government on mutual interests and building trust, but that both sides have moved beyond the Cold War.
"We would like to get to the point where there is just so much trust and cooperation between the US and Russia that nobody would think of turning to intelligence means to find out things that they couldn't find out in other channels," he said.
"We're apparently not there yet. I don't think anyone in this room is shocked to have discovered that."
The suspects face a maximum sentence of five years in prison for acting illegally as an agent of a foreign government, plus an additional 20 years for those charged with money laundering.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin criticised the arrests, and the former head of Russia’s FSB intelligence agency dismissed the charges as a political "laughing stock", Interfax reported.
The charges read like a "cheap detective story distinctly under the level of Agatha Christie", Nikolai Kovalyov, now a member of parliament, said, adding the accusations are "absolute rubbish".
Kovalyov and other Russian officials questioned the timing of the arrests. Kovalyov said the arrests could have been plotted by US officials seeking to undermine improved relations with Russia.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko called the timing "regrettable".
"All this is happening against the background of a new start with Russia, which had been announced by the US government," Nesterenko said, adding the case "resembles espionage scandals from the Cold War".
The country`s deputy justice minister, meanwhile, called for Russia to react by holding public trials of alleged US spies.
"It is after all no secret that agents of the US secret services work in Russia," Vladimir Kolesnikov, who also serves as a parliament member, said. "But so far they have, when unmasked, only quietly been expelled out of Russia. Now we will probably have to bring them before court."
Either way, Kolesnikov added, he expects an "adequate reaction" from Russia.