Washington, 23 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. decision to expel four employees of the Russian Embassy in Washington for activities incompatible with the status of diplomats calls attention to a fundamental fact of international life before, during, and after the Cold War: Major countries spy on one another and use their embassies as bases to do so.
The arrest last month of former FBI agent Robert Hanssen on charges of spying for Russia inevitably raised questions as to who his Russian contacts were. That investigation reportedly led to the withdrawal of Vladimir Frolov, a Russian employee of the embassy's press office, and to the U.S. decision to expel four additional embassy officers.
There were reports on 22 March that the U.S. has asked Moscow to reduce the number of its representatives in the United States to a level more in line with the number of American diplomats in Russia.
As has been true in similar spy scandals in the past, these events have prompted three different kinds of reaction. First of all, American officials, including President George W. Bush, described the expulsion as "the right thing to do," the necessary response of a government to espionage activities on the part of another state.
No country is prepared to tolerate forever spying by another against it, and the egregiousness of the Hanssen case, regardless of when it might have been exposed, forced Washington's hand. Indeed, media reports suggest, Hanssen's activities were confirmed by one or more recent Russian defectors over the last six months.
Second, these expulsions led to apocalyptic predictions that this "unfriendly act," to use the words of the Russian Foreign Ministry, was the work of individuals and groups who do not want good relations to develop between Russia and the West and that such actions by Washington threaten to revive the Cold War.
Inevitably, any actions by either Washington or Moscow in this area lead some to proclaim that the two risk going back to the confrontation of the Cold War period. But that is only because that period, from 1945 to 1991, defined the life experiences of most of those making this evaluation. In fact, both countries spied against one another before and after that period, as have all other major states against their real or potential opponents.
And third, this American government action has prompted some, both in Washington and Moscow, to suggest that this event must be put in context and that actions against spies working under diplomatic cover must not be allowed to overwhelm the entire agenda of ties between the countries involved.
This last view is likely to come to predominate discussions after the first days of outraged rhetoric on both sides. Some officials in each country already have indicated that the two countries have too much at stake to allow this incident to prevent progress on other fronts.
Some media outlets are already chronicling the long history of spies operating under diplomatic cover who have been expelled at one time or another in the past. Many countries use what is called "diplomatic cover" for their intelligence officers precisely because of the protections it affords those who get caught. With a diplomatic passport, none of those exposed suffer more than expulsion and perhaps dimmer career prospects.
But despite such precedents, the question inevitably arises as to whether this particular case could become the occasion if not the cause of a turning point in relations between Russia and the United States. And because of developments in both Washington and Moscow over the last year, that is still a serious possibility.
Bilateral relations have deteriorated both because of the increasingly authoritarian approach of new Russian President Vladimir Putin at home and his willingness to challenge American policies and interests around the world and because of the commitment of new American President George W. Bush to make a more "realistic" assessment of Russia.
Already this week, the Russian government has been incensed by the announcement that the U.S. State Department will now deal with representatives of the pro-independence Chechen rebels at a political rather than informational level, a shift in the American approach that many Russians view as a direct attack on their interests.
And Washington at the same time has been angered by Russia's continuing efforts to cooperate with Iran and Iraq and to seek to exclude the United States and other Western countries from being able to play a major role in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and elsewhere in the post-Soviet region.
If those trends continue, the two may be in for a period of heightened tensions, but even in that event, the expulsions of four Russians for suspected espionage will not be the primary cause nor will this American action or any Russian response bring an end to the centuries-old business of spying.