MOSCOW — Russia repaid the United States in kind for expelling 50 Russian diplomats – ordering out on Friday the same number of Americans – but President Vladimir Putin tried to soften the blow, saying relations wouldn’t be hurt.
Top Russian officials appeared to give a mixed response to the U.S.-Russian spy scandal, with the head of the influential Security Council accusing the United States of Cold War-style intimidation even as his boss took a low-key pose.
It was the biggest such spy spat since 1986, and the Russian action was the standard diplomatic response.
The No. 2 diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, deputy chief of mission John Ordway, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry, read a “decisive protest,” the ministry said, and told that four American diplomats must leave, allegedly for spying.
The U.S. State Department said it had been told that 46 more would be kicked out by this summer.
Putin played down the idea that it meant a sharp deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations.
“I do not think that it will have big consequences,” Putin was quoted as saying at a European Union summit in Stockholm, Sweden.
But another top Russian official, Security Council head Sergei Ivanov, complained that the new administration of President Bush was flexing its muscles and portraying Russia again as an “evil empire.”
Led by Ivanov, Russian officials had been working out what they called an appropriately “painful” response to the U.S. move Wednesday announcing the immediate expulsion of four Russian diplomats and the demand that 46 others leave by July.
“It’s hard to call Russian-American relations good. That’s a delicate diplomatic way of putting it,” Ivanov said.
He said Bush was imitating the Cold War style of predecessor Ronald Reagan, who kicked out 80 Soviet diplomats in two stages a month apart in 1986. The Soviets kicked out 10 Americans.
“After coming to power, one has to show he has biceps and a torso,” Ivanov said, calling the decision an attempt “to portray the Russia as the U.S.S.R., as the evil empire which does nothing but sell missiles and spy everywhere.”
Officials said the U.S. action was motivated by an increase in the number of Russian intelligence agents under diplomatic cover since 1997 and by the case of Robert Hanssen, the veteran FBI agent arrested on charges of spying for Russia and the Soviet Union.
The Russian statement also accused the four unidentified Americans of spying.
Though the number of Russians expelled was unusual, the U.S. move was a standard way for one country to express displeasure over another country’s intelligence operations.
“There has come a time again for the exchange of moves in the standard game of spying and diplomacy,” wrote ITAR-Tass news service commentator Yury Romantsov.
Earlier this week, Bulgaria kicked out three Russians, and the next day the Russians told three Bulgarians to leave Moscow.
Sergei Yastrzhembsky, a top Kremlin spokesman, said Russian had chosen the “proportional” response but wasn’t totally gloomy about the state of U.S.-Russian relations.
“We are registering positive signals, on the other hand we see sharp statements,” Yastrzhembsky said.
He said Russia was concerned about what he said were anti-Russian statements by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as well as the Bush administration’s intention to meet with representatives of rebel Chechnya.
He indicated it was too early to say which way U.S-Russian relations would go. However, “the Cold War is over,” he said.
U.S. Ambassador James Collins went ahead with a train trip through Siberia and the Urals to open a so-called American Corner in the main public libraries in four cities.
He said he had “nothing to say” about the expulsions but added that “sometimes there are difficulties, but we have serious interests that remain” in the relationship. Russian-American relations began the 1990s with euphoria over the fall of the Soviet Union and communism, but have hit a rough patch.
Irritants have included Russian resentment over U.S. plans for a national missile defense and the NATO-led bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, along with U.S. annoyance over what it says is Russia’s help for countries such as Iran and Iraq.
Russia has also protested the arrest of Pavel Borodin, a former Kremlin property manager, in New York on a Swiss money-laundering warrant.