Russia’s top diplomat says U.S. intelligence agencies were so desperate to recruit Russian spies in Washington last year that American officials planted $10,000 in cash inside a Russian official’s car, along with a letter asking the envoy to work with the U.S. government.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made that claim Tuesday, as he roundly dismissed the Obama administration’s ongoing assertion that U.S. diplomats have faced increasing harassment in Russia during recent years.
To the contrary, Mr. Lavrov claimed, it’s actually American spies who’ve increasingly bothered Russian officials in Washington.
In his first public comments on the matter since the Obama administration ejected 35 Russian officials from the U.S. last month on suspicion they were actually spies for Moscow, Mr. Lavrov claimed American intelligence attempts to recruit Russian spies in Washington spiked last April.
“We have not made public the full statistics on this matter, but recently, in the past few years and especially during Obama’s second [term], the number of such unfriendly actions directed at our diplomats have grown,” the Russian foreign minister said.
According to the Russian government-financed website Sputnik International, Mr. Lavrov pointed to one incident in particular in which U.S. spies left $10,000 in cash and a recruiting note inside a senior Russian diplomat’s car.
The foreign minister also explicitly shot back at Obama administration claims that U.S. diplomats have faced harassment in Russia. “In the period of the Obama administration, we received complaints that the U.S. embassy here is working in intolerable conditions, there is surveillance, the ambassador has been pulled the plug on, he is not accepted in any Russian institutions,” Mr. Lavrov said. “We have specifically dealt with this situation, it turned out to be exactly the opposite.”
Obama administration officials say American diplomats in Moscow have been followed and have reported intrusions to their private homes in Moscow. A video that aired last spring on national TV in Russia showed a Russian police officer violently wresting to the ground a man reported to have been an American official trying to enter the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
The State Department declined to comment Tuesday on Mr. Lavrov’s claim that U.S. spies have sought to recruit Russian diplomats in Washington.
But department spokesman John Kirby dismissed the notion that American officials have not been harassed in Moscow. “Over the last year or plus, we have seen an increase in harassment of our diplomats,” he told reporters in Washington.
“You saw the very dramatic video yourself of one of our employees literally being assaulted as he was trying to enter the embassy grounds,” Mr. Kirby said. “And it is because of that increase in harassment … [that] the president, just in the last couple of weeks, sanctioned some additional entities and individuals in Russia and declared ‘persona non grata’ on some 35 Russian diplomats.”
President Obama took the actions in response to a U.S. intelligence community assessment that Russian operatives engaged in hacking and other meddlesome activities aimed at influencing the outcome of 2016 U.S. election. In addition to the expulsions and sanctions, the administration shuttered two countryside vacation retreats outside Washington and New York City that were popular with Russian diplomats.
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