Russia threatens to expel dozens

Retaliation vowed for Bush's orders against diplomats

`An unfriendly step'

President defends U.S. decision as `right thing to do'

March 23, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Vowing to stage a retaliatory expulsion of several dozen American diplomats, Russian officials warned yesterday that Washington was threatening to restart the Cold War.

The foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, said the Bush administration's decision to send more than 50 Russian diplomats back to Moscow was politically motivated and "an unfriendly step" aimed at worsening relations.

"Naturally, as it has before, Russia will firmly and steadfastly defend its national interests and will adequately respond to this unfriendly step by the United States," Ivanov said in a statement he read on government-controlled ORT television.

"At the same time, the Russian leadership assumes that in Washington, the policy and logic of those who try to push mankind and the United States [back] into the epoch of the Cold War and confrontation won't prevail."

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he considered the matter closed. Administration officials indicated Russia's complement of intelligence agents posing as diplomats in the United States had grown to disproportionate numbers in the past several years. President Bush said he had done what he had to do.

"I was presented with the facts. I made the decision. It was the right thing to do," Bush told reporters.

But Russian officials made it clear the matter was not closed and that commensurate steps would be taken against Americans stationed here. Ivanov said Moscow would "adequately respond."

"We will easily find" U.S. diplomats to be expelled "in a more painful form to the U.S. than it was in our case," Sergei Ivanov, chief of Russia's Security Council, said on Polish state television during a visit to Warsaw.

"We have time to think, to carefully pick from among more than 1,000 U.S. diplomats in Russia, to choose those 46 who are most precious to the Americans," he was quoted as saying through an interpreter.

And despite the arrest in Washington last month of senior FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who stands accused of selling highly sensitive and dangerous documents to Russia, officials in Moscow blamed Washington for setting off the dispute.

"This is the most counterproductive step the Americans could have taken," said Nikolai Kovalyov, a member of parliament and the former head of the Federal Security Service. "It means the escalation of tension, and imparts an absolutely unnecessary political component to relations between our countries."

Among politicians and analysts close to the Kremlin, some suggested that the new Republican administration in Washington was simply demonstrating how tough it can be before the two sides get down to real business. But others - including some who are unfriendly toward the intelligence agencies of either side - were considerably less optimistic.

"Something's going wrong between the two nations - between the two presidents," said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the U.S. and Canada Institute here. "Something is wrong with their chemistry. We could all be rushing into another Cold War. We have to take this seriously."

"It'll be easy to become enemies in a year's time, if we keep moving in the direction and at the speed we've been moving," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Polity Foundation here and a close supporter of President Vladimir V. Putin.

Washington declared four diplomats persona non grata (unwelcome) in the United States and gave them 10 days to leave. Two others were ordered earlier to leave the country. All six were directly connected to the Hanssen case, U. S. officials said. Forty-six other Russian diplomats must leave by July.

The State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said, "The department made clear to the Russian side that any other Russian officials who may be subsequently implicated in the Hanssen case will not be welcome in the United States."

`Important interests'

Secretary of State Powell talked to Igor Ivanov yesterday and told him, "We consider this matter closed."

"We have important interests in maintaining cooperative and productive relations with Russia," Powell said later.

But there was a sense here that the Bush administration's unhappiness with Russia is markedly broader and deeper than that caused by the Hanssen case.

"Number One is Hanssen. Number Two is Iran. Number Three is National Missile Defense," said Nikonov, referring to Moscow's sale of nuclear components to Tehran and to Russian opposition to the proposed American missile shield.

The expulsion from the United States of about four dozen additional diplomats by summer does not appear to be directly related to Hanssen, but to the overall issue of Russian espionage in the United States.

"Their presence is just not representative of the kind of relations we would want to have with Russia," said Condoleezza Rice, Bush's assistant for national security.

Obsession with spies

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