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The BBC's Nick Bryant
"The Russians are almost certain to retaliate"
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The BBC's Steve Rosenberg
"The Cold War, it would seem, is far from over"
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Thursday, 22 March, 2001, 13:58 GMT
Analysis: Echoes of the Cold War
George W Bush
President Bush is taking a tougher line than his predecessor
By Diplomatic correspondent Barnaby Mason

The US decision to expel about 50 Russian diplomats suspected of being intelligence officers is the most dramatic move of its kind since 1986, when President Reagan ordered 80 Soviet diplomats to leave.

It seems to mark a change of policy from the Clinton era, and comes at a time of increasingly sharp exchanges between Washington and Moscow.

The Bush administration thought long and hard before deciding on drastic action in response to the arrest more than a month ago of the FBI agent, Robert Hanssen.

He is charged with spying for Russia over 15 years. In a similar celebrated case in 1994, under President Clinton, the arrest of the CIA officer Aldrich Ames was followed by the expulsion of only one Russian diplomat.

Frustrated

Many factors would have played a part in the latest move.

American spy Robert Hanssen
The expulsions follow the arrest of Robert Hanssen
As with the 1986 mass expulsion, it may be designed to reduce the number of Russian intelligence officers operating under diplomatic cover in the United States.

According to the New York Times, the FBI has become frustrated by the expansion of Russian intelligence activities. There was a decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but numbers are now believed to be back at near Cold War levels.

According to British sources, Russian intelligence agencies seem to have become more pro-active recently, especially in the information they leak to the media about alleged Western spying activities.

Russian soldiers in Chechnya
The two governments have clashed over the conflict in Chechnya
One theory is that they are encouraged by the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a product of the Soviet KGB.

But a mass expulsion has disadvantages.

The most obvious is that a tit-for-tat response severely reduces the number of CIA officers operating as diplomats in Russia, and there may be fewer of them than Russian agents in America.

The CIA has opposed such moves in the past for precisely that reason.

Sharp tone

In choosing a response near the top end of the diplomatic scale, the Bush administration is sending a political signal which is likely to be interpreted in Moscow as a desire to put Russia in its place.

The move will be seen as in keeping with the recent sharp tone of official American statements on Russian policy.

US ambassador to Moscow James Collins
The US ambassador went to the Russian foreign ministry
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has accused Russia of transferring weapons and high technology to hostile states - a reference to Mr Putin's decision to go ahead with sales of arms to Iran and the completion of a nuclear power plant there.

And his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, said the Russians seemed to be willing to sell anything to anyone for money.

In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry has described US State Department plans to meet a senior member of Chechnya's self-declared government as an explicitly unfriendly act.

Subside

That kind of language recalls the atmosphere of the Cold War. In a first response to the mass expulsion, a senior official in Moscow said campaigns of spy-mania were a relapse into the Cold War era.

But the expulsion of alleged Russian spies should not be taken as summing up President Bush's policy towards Russia.

The immediate flurry of accusations will no doubt subside.

Determination

But it does signal that the new administration is much less inclined than its predecessor to be accommodating and to take account of Russian sensitivities.

The determination to push ahead with ambitious schemes of anti-missile defence demonstrates that.

Above all, Washington is saying that Russia is much less important nowadays and will have to get used to it.

Whether that is a tenable long-term policy, given Russia's continuing huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, is far from clear.

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See also:

22 Mar 01 | Americas
Russia hits back over 'spies'
20 Feb 01 | Americas
Who's being spied on?
20 Feb 01 | Americas
Fifty years of spies
21 Feb 01 | Americas
Profile: Unassuming double agent?
05 Mar 01 | Americas
US court orders detention of 'spy'
05 Mar 01 | Europe
'Spy tunnel' angers Russia
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