Russia on Tuesday said U.S. allegations that it had broken up a major Russian spy ring just days after President Dmitry Medvedev met Barack Obama in Washington were baseless and improper.
U.S. authorities said on Monday they had arrested 10 suspected spies who had recruited political sources and gathered information for the Russian government.
They sometimes worked in pairs and pretended to be married so they could blend in as the couple next door as they worked as spies in a throwback to the Cold War with fake identities, invisible ink, coded radio transmissions and encrypted data to avoid detection, authorities say.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Farbiarz, speaking Monday in federal court in Manhattan, called the allegations against 10 people living in the Northeast "the tip of the iceberg" of a conspiracy of Russia's intelligence service, the SVR, to collect inside U.S. information, the biggest such bust in recent years.
Each of the 10 was charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison upon conviction. Two criminal complaints outlining the charges were filed in U.S. District Court for the southern district of New York.
Police said Monday that an 11th defendant, a man accused of delivering money to the agents, remained at large. A police spokesman in Cyprus said Tuesday that 54-year-old Christopher Robert Metsos, a Canadian citizen wanted by U.S. authorities on suspicion of espionage and money laundering, was arrested in the morning at Larnaca airport while trying to fly to Budapest, Hungary.
"Such actions are baseless and improper," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "We do not understand what prompted the U.S. Justice Department to make a public statement in the spirit of Cold War espionage."
"We deeply regret that all of this has happened against the background of the relations reset declared by the U.S. administration," it said.
U.S. authorities have charged 11 individuals with carrying out deep-cover work in the United States to recruit political sources and gather information for the Russian government.
The individuals were accused of collecting information ranging from research program on small-yield, high-penetration nuclear warheads, the global gold market and trying to obtain background on people who applied for jobs at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), according to criminal complaints filed in a U.S. federal court.
The Justice Department accused them of operating under orders of Russia's SVR agency as "illegals"; the term applied in the intelligence world to agents infiltrated to live and operate under false identities, rather than officers who use diplomatic cover or other legitimate cover.
Authorities said 10 of them were arrested on Sunday in Boston, New York, New Jersey and Virginia on charges including conspiracy to act as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation and money laundering.
Moscow has repeatedly accused Western powers of maintaining spying operations against Russia despite the end of the Cold War. Western powers also complain of Russian activity, especially in the commercial and scientific area.
The allegations come just days after Mr. Obama hailed a "reset" in ties between the former Cold War rivals when the two leaders met in Washington.
Mr. Medvedev last week toured the United States to try to show that Russia is building an innovative, investor-friendly economy. The U.S. Justice Department announced the arrests hours after Mr. Medvedev returned to Russia from a G20 summit in Toronto, which was also attended by Mr. Obama.
"The choice of timing was particularly graceful," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists during a trip to Jerusalem.
Russian analysts said the timing suggested it was an attempt by U.S officials to undermine the reset, which Mr. Obama's administration has hailed as a major foreign policy achievement.
"It's is a slap in the face to Barack Obama," said Anatoly Tsyganok, a political analyst at Moscow's Institute of Political and Military Analysis. Russia will inevitably follow Cold War etiquette and uncover an equal number of U.S. spies, he said.
The chief spokesman for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told Reuters he had no comment on the spying allegations and said the allegations were unlikely to be discussed during Mr. Putin's meeting on Tuesday with former U.S. President Bill Clinton in Moscow.
The chief spokesman for the SVR foreign intelligence service, Sergei Ivanov, said: "There will be no comment."
The goal of the alleged spies was to "become sufficiently 'Americanized' such that they could gather information about the United States for Russia and can successfully recruit sources who are in, or are able to infiltrate, United States policy-making circles", according to court papers.
One alleged spy was accused of sending back information about leadership changes at the CIA.
The U.S. Justice Department said they received extensive training in coded communications, how to evade detection and how to pass messages to other agents while casually brushing past them in public places.
The arrests are the culmination of a multi-year investigation that used extensive surveillance of communications and wiretaps, including putting listening devices into the homes of the accused individuals, the Justice Department said.
A senior Russian lawmaker, a deputy chairman of the security affairs committee in the lower house of parliament, Vladimir Kolesnikov, told RIA Novosti the arrests signaled that some quarters in the U.S. government oppose warmer ties with Russia.
"Regrettably, there are people in America burdened by the legacy of the Cold War, the legacy of double standards," he said. "And they react improperly to the warming of relations spearheaded by the presidents. It's a blow to President Obama."
Mr. Kolesnikov, a former deputy prosecutor general, said "U.S. secret agents are continuing to work" in Russia and suggested that Russia could respond in a tit-for-tat manner.
"Previously we have quietly evicted some of them," he said. "Now I think we should more actively apply criminal legislation against them."
However, Mr. Kolesnikov is not believed to have close ties to the Kremlin or knowledge of the government's plans.
With files from AP