Russia claimed Tuesday that it had caught an American diplomat in Moscow trying to recruit a Russian intelligence officer to work for the CIA. It's an incident weirdly reminiscent of the Cold War, and could potentially cloud U.S. relations with one of the world's most powerful nations.
The CIA had no comment on the matter. One American official who spoke to NBC News said that "The interest of the two countries will remain paramount. It shouldn't be blown out of proportion."
A State Department spokesperson confirmed that a U.S. Embassy officer, Ryan Christopher Fogle, had been briefly detained and released in Moscow, but had no further comment.
Intelligence cooperation with Russia has been essential in piecing together last month’s Boston Marathon bomb attack, in which the two suspects, deceased Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his brother, Dzokhar, were ethnic Chechens born in Kyrgyzstan. Many believe that the elder Tsarnaev was radicalized during a 2012 trip to Russia, and there has been a lengthy back and forth over when and how Russian intelligence officials flagged Tsarnaev to their U.S. counterparts.
The arrest of the American diplomat, Ryan Christopher Fogle, comes just a week after FBI chief Robert Mueller visited Moscow for talks, and days after Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to push for a tougher stance on Syria. At the time, the two leaders praised their joint strategy as proof of a new era of U.S.-Russian cooperation.
Throw in the House GOP's Benghazi obsession, and it's clear President Obama hasn't exactly been having a cakewalk on foreign policy these days. Indeed, it seems that while Obama’s first-term strength was foreign policy, it could now be his weakness.
During his re-election bid, Obama campaigned fiercely on his foreign policy credentials—including pulling troops out of Iraq, coming up with a timetable to do the same in Afghanistan, killing Osama bin Laden, and nudging Arab countries toward democracy during the Arab Spring.
Now, barely four months into his second term, Obama faces a brewing storm on foreign policy. Pressure for intervention in Syria is mounting. Republican lawmakers want to further investigate the administration’s actions surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, specifically the administration's editing of talking points. And now—Russia.
According to Russia’s Federal Security Service, the arrested American man was an employee at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, but was working undercover for the CIA. According to an FSB statement provided to NBC News, he was carrying “special technical equipment,” a “large sum of money” and the “means for changing one’s appearance.” Russia is now seeking to expel the American from the country.
“At the time when our presidents have confirmed readiness for developing bilateral collaboration, including in the areas of special services’ work and struggle against international terrorism, such provocative actions sound in spirit of [the] Cold War and they absolutely do not help the strengthening of mutual trust,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The U.S. government has not commented on the arrest.
Shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings, Obama praised Russian authorities’ help on the Boston investigation, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin assured him that Russia is committed to helping. Obama acknowledged that suspicions still exist from the Cold War and “old habits die hard.” And this latest development will surely not help.
With regard to Syria, Obama said at a press conference on Monday that he was cautious about whether the international community could broker a peace deal in the Arab country. The U.S. has recently beefed up aid to Syrian rebels, but there’s a growing call to use more force. “I’m not promising that it’s going to be successful,” Obama said. He added that once “furies have been unleashed in a situation like we’re seeing in Syria, it’s very hard to put things back together. But it’s worth the effort.”
And on Benghazi, the president tried to dismiss the talking points controversy as a “sideshow,” and blamed his opponents for creating a “political circus.” Obama said the e-mails published Friday had been released by the White House a long time ago, and the notion that there’s been a cover-up is bogus.
“The whole thing defies logic, and the fact that this thing keeps getting churned out” has a lot of do with politics, said Obama.
Nonetheless, it's clear that these days, foreign policy is a burr in Obama's saddle—not a feather in his cap.