The expulsion of Aleksandr Lysenko, Washington rezident of the SVRR, the Russian foreign intelligence service which succeeded the KGB, was announced by the State Department. The move came barely 24 hours after a US delegation returned empty-handed from Moscow, where it had somewhat optimistically tried to persuade the Russians to help clear up what is perhaps America's most damaging espionage scandal in modern times.
Despite the Cold War trappings of the occasion, the US reprisal is comparatively modest. Only one Soviet national, said to have been 'in a position to be' Mr Ames' controller, has been ordered out. Also, the notice given to Mr Lysenko is more generous than the 48 or even 24 hours accorded to Soviet citizens declared persona non grata in the past.
Essentially it is a compromise, which the administration hopes will be tough enough to placate growing anti-Russian sentiment on Capitol Hill, yet sufficiently restrained to avoid a response in kind from Moscow. Privately, officials blame not so much the Russians as the CIA and Mr Ames for the debacle.
But whether Washington can avoid escalation is doubtful. Upon being summoned to the State Department and notified of the US sanction, Russia's charge d'affaires here delivered a formal protest of his own. If Moscow does expel a CIA officer, other Russians here could be given their marching orders. 'We take this very seriously,' the State Department spokesman, Mike McCurry, said, indicating that further action was possible.
Earlier, President Clinton, while admitting the 'serious damage' to US national security if the charges against Mr Ames and his wife, Maria, are borne out, again attempted to prevent the spy affair from affecting wider US relations with its former superpower rival, and Washington's underlying strategy of helping the reformist cause in Russia.
US policy was not built on 'illusions and blind faith', he declared - a tacit admission that Washington's spy operations were as vigorous, if perhaps less successful, as those of Moscow. But he appealed for aid to continue.