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Wednesday, 21 March, 2001, 07:10 GMT
Russian diplomat 'was spy'
The FBI searches Robert Hanssen's home in Virginia
Mr Frolov's departure may be linked to Robert Hanssen
By Katty Kay in Washington

The Russian Government is refusing to comment on reports that one of its diplomats in Washington has returned home suddenly because he was a spy.

The New York Times reported on Monday that Vladimir Frolov, press attache at the Russian embassy in Washington, worked for Russia's foreign intelligence service.

Referring to the diplomat, an embassy spokesman said: "He worked at the embassy and he left. We are not commenting on the article or on intelligence matters."

FBI officials told The New York Times that Mr Frolov was an officer in the SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence service.

Unexpected departure

Mr Frolov was well known in press circles in Washington as a frank and reliable commentator on US-Russian relations.

Russian Embassy in Washington
Mr Frolov worked at the Russian Embassy
He had told journalists here that he was unexpectedly cutting short his tour of duty in America in order to take up a job with the Russian newspaper Izvestia.

The FBI's comments to The New York Times suggest a very different story.

The anonymous FBI sources raised links between Mr Frolov's sudden departure and the recent arrest of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent accused of spying for Moscow who was arrested last month.

The sources suggested that Mr Frolov may have been in involved in handling the Hanssen operation and that is why he has now left.

Mr Frolov was not forced to leave but his departure might have been a pre-emptive move.

Trying times

Mr Frolov's departure comes at a time when the US-Russian relationship is already strained because of espionage issues.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
The US worries that Mr Putin is backing espionage
Following the arrest of Mr Hanssen, the Bush administration is deliberating whether to demand that Moscow withdraw some of its intelligence officers who are working in the US.

American intelligence officials have reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself a former intelligence officer, is reviving Russia's secret services.

Officials at the FBI say that they have evidence that there are currently almost as many Russian spies operating in America as there were during the Cold War.

But it is not easy for America to respond to these increasing espionage threats.

Tit for tat

If America demands that Russian spies return home it opens the door for retaliatory measures and American spies operating in Russia could also be forced to leave their posts.

Robert Hanssen, FBI agent accused of spying
Recently arrested spy Robert Hanssen may have been "handled" by Frolov
Moreover the Hanssen case has put Washington in an awkward position.

One of the most sensitive secrets Mr Hanssen is accused of divulging to Moscow is that Americans built a tunnel underneath the Russian embassy in Washington in order to eavesdrop on the Russian diplomats.

Moscow has already made a diplomatic protest about the tunnel.

For the US Government, there is one benefit from the increased levels of Russian espionage in America.

Benefits

The more Russian spies there are in the US, the more potential double agents there are for Washington to try to recruit.

In the last few months at least two Russian diplomats have defected from their posts in America and Canada.

They were men who had been spying against their country.

And Mr Hanssen's arrest was also attributed to information provided by a Russian agent working for American intelligence.

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See also:

05 Mar 01 | Europe
'Spy tunnel' angers Russia
20 Feb 01 | Americas
Who's being spied on?
20 Feb 01 | Americas
Fifty years of spies
20 Feb 01 | Americas
FBI agent arrested for spying
05 Apr 00 | Europe
Analysis: Spymasters change focus
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