Russian media delight in US spy case as leaders try to limit fallout

MOSCOW (REUTERS) - Russian state-run media revelled on Wednesday in embarrassing the United States over a botched attempt to recruit one of its intelligence agents but both countries signalled they wanted to prevent the episode harming efforts to improve relations.

Moscow expelled a US diplomat on Tuesday, saying he had been caught red-handed with disguises, special equipment and wads of cash as he tried to recruit a Russian agent for the CIA.

US Ambassador Michael McFaul spent about 30 minutes at the Russian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday after being summoned to give an explanation, and the Ministry said it had issued a formal protest.

Although President Vladimir Putin said nothing about the incident, state news channels repeatedly showed footage of the US diplomat, Ryan Fogle, in an incongruous-looking blond wig being pinned to the ground by a Russian undercover agent in a"sting" operation.

The images, highly embarrassing for the United States, appeared part of efforts to boost Mr Putin's ratings following his allegations that Washington has stoked protests against him, rather than an attempt to derail relations between the nations.

"It (the attempted recruitment) does not contribute to the future process of strengthening mutual trust between Russia and the United States and putting our relations on a new level," Mr Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Itar-Tass news agency.

But he avoided inflammatory language over the expulsion of Mr Fogle, a third secretary at the US Embassy who was detained late on Monday.

There is little sign that either country wants to go beyond a minimum response as Washington and Moscow try to improve strained relations and bring the warring sides in Syria together for an international peace conference.

In Washington, US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell suggested the episode was unlikely to affect broader US-Russian relations or plans for the Syria conference.

"I'm not sure I would read too much into one incident one way or another," Mr Ventrell said.

The incident may have been directed more at a domestic Russian audience to rally support among conservative and traditional voters following protests against Mr Putin by mainly liberal and middle-class voters.

The former KGB spy has also used more blunt tactics against the opposition since the departure of long-term political adviser Vladislav Surkov at the end of 2011 and his replacement by Vyacheslav Volodin, a less sophisticated strategist.

"In the Russian elite there are influential groups who oppose America and waste no opportunity to spite the United States," political analyst Pavel Salin said.

State media moved into action quickly after the federal Security Service, a successor to the KGB, announced Mr Fogle's detention.

Television channels soon started showing footage of Mr Fogle's detention and photographs appeared on the web showing the diplomat in the blond wig, with props reminiscent of a schoolboy's spy kit.

A photograph published by the Russia Today channel on its website showed two wigs, apparently found on him, as well as three pairs of glasses, a torch, a mobile phone and a compass.

Also displayed was a wad of 500-euro (S$800) notes and a letter printed in Russian and addressed to a "Dear friend"offering US$100,000 (S$123,000) if the target cooperated - with the promise of more to come for long-term cooperation.

US-Russian relations had thawed markedly under US President Barack Obama's first-term "reset" of ties, although they have chilled again since Mr Putin returned to the presidency a year ago.

Russia has ejected the US Agency for International Development and curbed US-supported NGOs in moves it says are aimed at preventing foreign meddling.

Moscow has also responded to US legislation imposing visa bans and asset freezes on Russians accused of human rights abuses with a similar law against Americans, and has banned Americans from adopting Russian children.

But Mr Obama and Mr Putin have signalled they want to patch things up again, including by improving counterterrorism cooperation after the Boston Marathon bombings.