Russia yesterday accused the US of "crude and clumsy" spying on its territory after a suspected CIA agent was caught in Moscow seeking to recruit an agent while disguised in a blonde wig.
The foreign ministry issued an official protest to the US ambassador, whom it summoned to an early morning meeting, but signs also grew that neither side wanted the cold war-style incident to develop into a full-scale crisis.
The suspected agent was caught late on Monday as he tried to recruit a Russian security agent with an advance of HK$100,000 for intelligence on the Northern Caucasus, according to the Russian FSB security service.
The man, who was carrying a "typical espionage arsenal" of money and disguises such as wigs and spectacles, is said to have been working undercover as a low-ranking third secretary at the US embassy.
"To say the least, we are surprised by [this] extremely crude and clumsy recruitment," President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, was quoted as saying by the Itar-Tass news agency.
Ushakov also expressed surprise that it appeared vows by Putin and President Barack Obama for special services to work closer together had not filtered through to the CIA or the US embassy.
But Ushakov also said Russian national security chief Nikolai Patrushev would visit the United States from May 20 to 21, possibly carrying a message on bilateral relations from Putin to Obama.
He said: "I do not think that what has happened will influence this co-operation, all the more as its importance has been agreed at a high level."
The suspected agent, named as Ryan Fogle, was handed back to the US embassy and ordered to leave the country after being declared persona non grata.
The Kommersant daily said Fogle was likely to have been seeking intelligence about the Boston marathon bombers whose origins were in the Russian Northern Caucasus, despite pledges by security services to co-operate in the investigation.
It said Fogle may have been trying to recruit an Russian anti-terror agent in Dagestan whose details US officials had obtained on a visit to the Caucasus in April that was facilitated by Russia.
The foreign ministry said that deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov had issued a formal protest to US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, confirming that Fogle had to leave in the "shortest possible time".
An FSB agent interviewed by Russian state television said Moscow had already warned the US against such behaviour but "they did not listen to us".
"Fogle arrived in Spring 2011. Russia already had intelligence he was from the CIA and from the moment of his arrival he was put under the corresponding operative control" said the agent.
US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell confirmed an American staff member at the embassy had been briefly detained, but refused to respond to allegations he was a CIA agent.
Post-cold war cases of apparent US-Russia spying
THE ANNA CHAPMAN RING
These Russian spies lived in suburban US homes and worked in inconspicuous jobs, quietly inserting themselves into American life while trying to penetrate US policy circles. Court papers said Chapman and nine others assumed the identities of people who had died, communicating with invisible ink and coded radio transmissions. After their 2010 arrests, all 10 pleaded guilty to spying charges. The red-headed Chapman, 28 at the time, became the most notorious member of the ring, partially because of glamorous photos she posted on social networking sites. She has stayed in the limelight since her deportation to Russia, hosting a reality television show and modelling lingerie.
Tretyakov once called the United Nations a nest of spies. And he would know. For five years in the 1990s, Tretyakov worked at Russia's diplomatic mission at the UN - recruiting and running spies. He also found Canada to be fertile ground for finding people willing to rat on the US. Tretyakov claimed his agents helped Russia siphon nearly US$500 million from the UN oil-for-food sanctions programme for Iraq. Then in 2000, he defected to the US. He died in Florida in 2010.
STANISLAV BORISOVICH GUSEV
Gusev, a Russian diplomat, planted a bug inside the US State Department in Washington, and then hung around outside the building to listen, according to US authorities. Agents became suspicious when they spotted him feeding a parking meter outside the building without ever going inside. He was arrested in 1999 and expelled from the US.
As a CIA officer in Turkey, Ames worked to turn Russians against their government. But in 1985, he switched sides himself, offering his services to the Soviets. He continued working for the Russians after the Soviet Union broke up. He communicated with his handlers by leaving chalk marks on a Washington post box. He eventually passed to Moscow dozens of names of Russians who were spying for the US. The FBI arrested Ames in 1994 and he pleaded guilty to spying that same year.