CIA spy case shows Russia, U.S. are far from being best of friends

February 24, 1994|By Mark Matthews and Carl M. Cannon | Mark Matthews and Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Bit by painful bit, it's becoming clearer that while the United States and Russia are not the enemies they used to be, they are far from being the best of friends.

The arrest of a CIA official on charges of selling sensitive secrets to the Russians is part of a recent pattern of events that brings post-Cold War Russia into clearer focus.

Amid economic chaos and a painful transition to democracy, Russia views itself as a great power with interests that at times clash with the United States'.

Increasingly, Russia is putting action behind the words uttered some time ago by one of its Washington diplomats: "We are not Bangladesh."

Fearing a public and congressional backlash against aiding a country so ungrateful as to spy, the Clinton administration was concerned yesterday with driving home the message that aid is a long-term U.S. investment that will pay dividends in future cooperation.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., chairman of Select Committee on Intelligence, called for a two-month freeze on aid to Russia.

But President Clinton insisted, "I still believe it is in the interests of the United States to support democracy, to support the movement toward economic reform, to support the absence of weapons proliferation, to support the denuclearization of Russia, and therefore I think we should be careful before we make specific determinations about aid flows."

Behind the scenes, administration officials are trying to assess what the spy case means about Russian intentions.

Is it just old habits that are hard to break? Or is there still a hostile intent toward the United States? And if so, does it reach into the ranks of Moscow's policy-makers who are outwardly cooperative?

The arrest of Aldrich Hazen Ames, a mid-level CIA official who once was an official in the agency's Soviet counterintelligence program, exposed the seldom-publicized reality that aggressive LTC spying didn't end with the Cold War.

The United States still spies on Russia, with the aim of assessing Moscow's military capability and purposes.

Publicly, the administration is giving President Boris N. Yeltsin and his reform-minded colleagues the benefit of the doubt, suggesting that the Ames case was the work of "regressive elements" in the Russian government who haven't gotten the message.

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, in prepared testimony, was about to warn: "The continuation of Russian espionage activities against the United States is unacceptable."

But he omitted this remark when he actually spoke, and White House and State Department officials hastened to play down any implied threat, saying that Mr. Christopher simply meant that spying was illegal.

What the administration actually demands of Russia is modest: to withdraw, on its own, the offending "diplomats" who allegedly served as Mr. Ames' handlers.

"We're going to be doing everything we can to protest [the alleged spying] and prevent any recurrence," Mr. Christopher said mildly.

"No one is saying, 'How dare they!' " one official said.

Privately, however, a senior administration official acknowledged that Washington must grapple with the possibility that the supposed rogue elements behind the Ames case will acquire more clout, not less, as Russia's political turmoil plays out.

Worse, the official acknowledged, the intelligence services might not be rogue elements at all but instead loyal servants of policy-makers such as Mr. Yeltsin, Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev and Gen. Pavel Grachev, the defense minister, all of whom the Clinton administration considers generally trustworthy.

Former CIA Director Robert M. Gates said yesterday: "If anything, the [Russian military intelligence] has been more aggressive since the end of the Soviet Union. And their priorities remain the same, primarily technology, but recruiting agents of other intelligence services is always a high priority."

The case broke against a backdrop of Russian assertiveness in foreign policy, particularly since December's parliamentary elections tapped a vein of nationalist resentment.

When it judged that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was serious about threats to bomb Bosnian Serb heavy weapons outside of Sarajevo, Russia launched a diplomatic push to get their Serbian allies to comply.

Russia reacted negatively to expanding NATO to include former East Bloc members, used its troop presence in the Baltics to demand better treatment for Russian nationals and claimed authority to keep the peace among states and warring factions on its periphery.

Despite several years, beginning under former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, of almost Boy Scout-style global citizenship as the Communist empire collapsed, Russia did not lose sight of its traditional interests, and continued to gird itself with espionage to advance those interests.

Now, it is combining covert deeds with more muscular diplomacy, trying to emerge as a force to be reckoned with, one still armed with thousands of nuclear warheads and a United Nations Security Council veto.

As the realization sets in on Capitol Hill that Western aid has not bought an obsequious Russia, the Clinton administration is changing its tune, apparently realizing that statements last year about Russian reforms were overly optimistic.

"Events of the past weeks have revived fears about Russia's future," Mr. Christopher told Congress in prepared testimony yesterday, reflecting a realistic new tone.

"The dangers in Russia remain very real. We must be prepared for the possibility that reform could be reversed and that an aggressive Russian nationalism could emerge from the ashes of communism -- even by democratic means."

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