MOSCOW -- Russia's spies may have come in out of the Cold War, but they have zealously taken up a new mission -- protecting the national interests of a nation that feels increasingly vulnerable.
They were officially unrepentant yesterday over the furor in the United States caused by the Ames espionage accusation.
The chief spokesman for the Foreign Intelligence Service, still popularly known by its former name KGB, commenting only indirectly on the uproar, called it strange that the United States began "a large-scale spy mania campaign over such an ordinary case."
But earlier this month, Yuri Kobaladze, the spokesman, offered a more introspective assessment of the hidden world of espionage and the new Russian philosophy that directs it.
"During the Cold War, intelligence was dominated by ideology," he said. "What was wrong for the United States was right for us. Now we don't have any constant enemies -- only constant national interest."
The political situation has changed the frame of reference, he said. "But the basics remain the same," Mr. Kobaladze asserted, "to supply the government and president with information."
Anyone who has been listening to such official pronouncements would understand that while the intelligence service's officials may be willing to hand over the blueprints for the infamous 1980s bugging of a new U.S. Embassy building in Moscow -- as one intelligence service head did in 1992 -- they were certainly not willing to retreat from the international scene.
Mr. Kobaladze, in fact, complained that Russia had to work hard, relying on old-fashioned methods of getting information.
"The CIA uses satellites," he said. "We don't use satellites. Again, it doesn't really matter how you get information. You still have to get it."
Most Russians paid little attention to the case. It was revealed late Tuesday, Moscow time, and yesterday's newspapers had not had time to write about it. The television news concentrated on domestic politics.
Those Russians who heard about the spy scandal on the radio were shocked that the KGB would pay an American $1.5 million for information when the nation can't even pay workers in defense plants here.
"Our foreign policy is subordinated to the Americans anyway," said Vladimir Andreyev, a hard-line Communist marching in an anti-government demonstration. "It's so stupid to send spies there. On the other hand, your spies work here. But I'm for peaceful contacts."
Even critics of the intelligence service, however, were startled by the righteous indignation they heard from American officials over the affair.
"All over the world, intelligence operates the same way," said Natalia Gevorkyan, an expert on the intelligence service who writes for the weekly Moscow News. "My God. Everyone is crying as if they didn't know there were any spies. How do you explain the hysteria?"
She predicted the reaction could prove unproductive for both countries. Some Russians, she said, will suspect that the timing was odd, coming so soon after a Russian diplomatic victory in Bosnia. The United States could be perceived as deliberately trying to embarrass Russia for asserting itself in international affairs.
"They investigated Ames for 10 months," she said. "Why arrest him Tuesday?"
Businessmen, Ms. Gevorkyan said, were already grumbling that America was trying to find an excuse to withdraw offers of aid.
"Partnership is one thing," she said, "and intelligence is another. You cannot say, 'We'll help you if you withdraw all your spies,' when you have your own spies here."
Mr. Kobaladze said in a Danish television interview Feb. 2 that Russia has closed down 30 intelligence stations around the world since 1991 and cut its list of agents by 30 percent to 40
percent. Many analysts consider this credible, given the
government's shortage of money.
In a January interview, Leonid Sherbashin, who retired as head of Soviet foreign intelligence after the August 1991 coup, asserted that the former KGB has indeed become a kinder, gentler agency.
"Under war conditions, you had to be tougher, more harsh," he said. "You had to be more insistent, to do things in a not-quite civilized manner."
New international partnerships, he said, have required changes by the service.
"You have to adjust your methods, your actions, to the new situation," he said. "Our work was to gather information that was concealed from the eyes of our leaders. So it doesn't matter whether you work in the Cold War or in peace. You have to get information that's being concealed."