Russia said on Tuesday it had caught an American red-handed as he tried to recruit a Russian intelligence officer to work for the CIA, a throwback to the Cold War era that risks upsetting efforts to improve relations.
The announcement came at an awkward time, just days after a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during which Washington and Moscow agreed to try to bring the warring sides in Syria together for an international peace conference.
The Federal Security Service said Ryan Fogle, a third secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, had been detained overnight carrying “special technical equipment”, a disguise, a large sum of money and instructions for recruiting his target.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it had summoned U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul over the case and a Russian television station published photographs which it said showed Fogle being detained, apparently wearing a blond wig.
A successor of the Soviet-era KGB, the FSB said Fogle worked for the Central Intelligence Agency and that he had been handed over to embassy officials at some point after his detention.
Diplomats accused of espionage are usually expelled or withdrawn.
“On the night of May 13-14, a staff employee of the CIA, Ryan Christopher Fogle … was detained by counter-espionage organs of the Russian FSB while attempting to recruit an employee of one of the Russian special services,” the FSB said.
“Recently American intelligence has made multiple attempts to recruit employees of Russian law enforcement organs and special agencies, which have been detected and monitored by Russian FSB counterintelligence,” it said in a statement.
The embassy declined comment. McFaul, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, was holding a live question-and-answer session on Twitter as news of the detention was announced, but refused to take questions on the matter.
Russia Today television published photographs on its website which it said showed Fogle being detained. In one photograph, a man lies face-down on the ground with his arms held behind his back by another man, and apparently wearing a blond wig.
Another image showed two wigs, apparently found on him, as well as three pairs of glasses, a torch, a mobile phone and a compass. Aldo displayed was a wad of 500-euro ($650) notes and an envelope addressed to a “dear friend”.
The United States and Russia are still involved in espionage, more than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, and the FSB said such incidents were not unusual.
The last major espionage scandal occurred in 2010, when 10 Russian agents including Anna Chapman were arrested in the United States and later deported in exchange for four Russians imprisoned on charges of spying for the West.
U.S.-Russian relations turned colder after former KGB spy Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency a year ago.
The United States and Russia are also trying to improve counterterrorism cooperation following the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15. FBI chief Robert Mueller visited Moscow for talks last week.