US opposition grows to friendship with Russia: Ames case gives Republicans ammunition to attack President Clinton's Moscow policy

IN A closed briefing for Russian reporters earlier this week, Yevgeny Primakov, the head of Russian intelligence, said that he was puzzled by the fuss the United States was making over the arrest of Aldrich Ames, the CIA man accused of spying for Moscow.

He suggested that the administration was using the case to punish Russia for its independent political stance in Bosnia and elsewhere, and as an excuse to cut aid to Moscow.

Mr Primakov asked why, if the US believed that 10 of its spies had been betrayed by Mr Ames and then executed, the US ambassador to Moscow, Thomas Pickering, had not asked about their fate when he made his official protest about Russian spying in the US. The suggestion that the US is exaggerating the significance of the Ames case is too cynical. But there is no doubt that the arrest of Mr Ames has crystallised opposition to the close relationship between the US and Russia.

Nor is there any sign of the impact of the scandal dying away. When Mr Ames and his wife appeared in an Alexandria court yesterday, federal prosecutors raised their estimate of the amount he was allegedly paid by the Russians to more than dollars 2.5m ( pounds 1.7m).

Opposing bail for Mrs Ames, the government said: 'Armed with any part of the more than dollars 1m in Russian funds still unaccounted for, Mrs Ames would have more than ample means to flee this country.'

A nine-page letter to Mr Ames from his alleged Russian controllers was found in his house, asking for information on CIA penetration of Russian intelligence. An FBI agent said an East European diplomat in Washington, who had supplied Mr Ames with information, had disappeared when he went home on a visit. He believed Mr Ames betrayed him.

The CIA has reopened investigation into the death of Fred Woodruff, the CIA station chief in Georgia, who was murdered a week after Mr Ames, who was by then under suspicion as a Russian agent, visited the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, last August. The shooting of Woodruff had previously been blamed on a drunken soldier.

The White House wants to limit damage done to relations with Moscow. Although the US demand that Russia withdraw all its spies in Washington was rebuffed by the Russians, the tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats is now over. But there is no doubt that the Republicans, frustrated at their inability to find an effective line of attack against President Clinton's domestic policies, see an opportunity to damage him by saying that his partnership with Russia is coming unstuck.

A return to limited confrontation with Russia would suit institutions in Washington which flourished during the Cold War, such as the intelligence agencies and the military. All have been largely successful in protecting their post-Cold War budgets, but are unclear about their role. A former member of the CIA said even the Ames case had benefits for the agency 'because it proves there is still an enemy to be combated out there'.

Trouble for Mr Clinton has grown ever since the failure at the polls of President Boris Yeltsin's supporters in December.

This is partly because he himself oversold his Russia policy as a success which more than made up for setbacks in Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti last year. As a result, Vice- President Al Gore arrived in Moscow after the election to find that only 15 per cent of Russian voters approved the parties most friendly to the US.

The pay-off for good relations with Russia was meant to be Russian pressure on the Serbs to end the war against the Bosnian Muslims. But when the Russians finally sent troops to Sarajevo last month, it seemed rather to provide a figleaf for the Serbs to withdraw or hand over their heavy weapons without appearing to cave in to Nato pressure. The Russian presence will also lock in place the present balance of power on the ground to the advantage of the Bosnian Serbs.

There was never a strong constituency in Washington for aid to Russia.

The Ames case will make it difficult to get money from Congress in future. A more combative Russia is not the Soviet Union reborn, but Mr Primakov is right in believing that the re-emergence of the Russian threat is politically convenient for many in Washington.

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