MOSCOW — Russia told the United States today that it would expel 50 U.S. diplomats, answering Washington's move to oust 50 Russian diplomats over a roiling spy scandal — the latest sign of rising tensions between the two countries.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that the spy scandal would not have a signficant impact on relations between the two countries, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
"I do not think that it will have big consequences," Putin was quoted as saying at a European Union summit in Stockholm, Sweden.
The deputy chief of mission of the U.S. Embassy, John Ordway, was called to the Foreign Ministry to hear an official protest of the U.S. expulsions. He was told that four embassy officials would be expelled over the next few days "for activities incompatible with their status," the ministry said in a statement, using the usual euphemism for espionage.
"J. Ordway was also apprised of other measures for stopping unlawful activities of official American representatives in Russia," the terse statement said, without elaborating. But a State Department spokeswoman in Washington said 46 more U.S. diplomats would have to leave the country by July 1.
Russian officials at the highest levels had been working out what they called an appropriately "painful" response to Washington's announcement it would send the Russian diplomats home.
They called the U.S. move politically driven and a throwback to the Cold War, and warned it could seriously injure wobbly relations between the former rivals.
"We will easily find" U.S. diplomats to be expelled "in a more painful form to the United States than it was in our case," Sergei Ivanov, chief of Russia's influential Security Council, said on Polish state television during a visit to Warsaw late Thursday.
"We have time to think, to carefully pick from among more than 1,000 U.S. diplomats in Russia, to choose those who are most precious to the Americans," he was quoted as saying through an interpreter.
Tensions have been rising between the two countries, which have clashed over Washington's plans to deploy a limited missile defense system, NATO's eastward expansion and U.S. allegations of Russian corruption.
Russian-U.S. relations have been rocked by a number of spy scandals, including the conviction of a former U.S. naval intelligence officer, Edmond Pope, on espionage charges last year for obtaining allegedly classified plans for an underwater torpedo.
Moscow claims foreign intelligence agents have intensified their work in Russia, and the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, has called for increased vigilance.
The campaign has reached such proportions that what appeared to be a run-of-the-mill arrest of John Tobin, an American Fulbright exchange scholar, on drug charges last month was tinged with allegations he had ties to U.S. intelligence —apparently because he had been in basic training for the U.S. Army before coming to Russia.
The latest expulsions by Washington — the biggest since the Cold War — came after U.S. officials said four Russian diplomats had been directly implicated in the case of Robert Hanssen, a 25-year FBI veteran who was arrested last month and charged with passing secrets to Moscow for the past 15 years. Two other diplomats who were also allegedly involved in the case departed the United States recently.
The U.S. government demanded the departure of 46 others as a gesture of concern over Russia's alleged stepping-up of intelligence operations in the United States over the past four years, officials said.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Thursday there were no grounds for the imminent expulsion of the Russian diplomats.
"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 read on government-controlled ORT television.
Political leaders expressed outrage at Washington's move.
"They can't get along without Russia, and to think that they can talk with us as with some sort of Latin American country — and not just any Latin American country, but with some banana republic!," Yevgeny Primakov, a former Soviet spymaster who is now a head of the Fatherland-Our Russia party, said on Russian state television.
In spite of the escalating diplomatic conflict, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, James Collins, went ahead with what the embassy press office termed a "long-planned" train trip through Siberia and the Urals to open a so-called American Corner in the main public libraries in four cities.
He was also scheduled to meet with regional officials, review programs run by the U.S. Agency for International Development and visit a Junior Achievement Russia Internet classroom, the press office said in a statement.