WASHINGTON -- Retaliating against Russia for this week's sensational spy case, the Clinton administration yesterday expelled a man they described as the top intelligence officer in the Russian Embassy here.
Aleksander Iosifovich Lysenko, officially listed as a "counselor" in the Russian Embassy, was given seven days to leave the country as a payback for the arrest Monday, on suspicion of espionage, of a CIA official, Aldrich Ames, and his wife, Maria del Rosario Casas Ames.
Administration officials said they had demanded that Moscow recall one or more of its diplomats. In addition, the administration, acting on recommendations from the CIA, asked the Russians to reduce the number of diplomats on "declared" status -- assigned to intelligence activity. Finally, the Russians were asked to change the status of numerous "undeclared" diplomats who the United States says are involved in espionage.
All the requests were rejected by the Russians.
The Americans tried to appeal through diplomatic channels to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to go along with these measures. But Mr. Yeltsin made it clear that he was unwilling to overrule Russia's intelligence services, officials said.
Clinton administration officials suspect that Moscow may retaliate by expelling Mr. Lysenko's American counterpart, the CIA station chief at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. But the United States will probably refrain from further expulsions unless new names of Russian diplomats surface in the Ames probe, officials said.
"The administration is trying to avoid escalation," an administration official said.
Clinton loses patience
Nevertheless, at a news conference that felt like a relic from the Cold War, President Clinton indicated that his patience with Moscow had been exhausted.
"We intend to take the action that we think is appropriate," he told reporters in the White House briefing room. "And you won't have to wait long to find out what that is."
Just 90 minutes later, James Collins, the senior State Department coordinator for the independent states of the former Soviet Union, summoned the Russian Embassy's charge d'affaires, Vladimir Chkhikvishivili, to the State Department and informed him that Mr. Lysenko was being expelled.
Later in the afternoon, State Department spokesman Michael McCurry described Mr. Lysenko as "the chief Russian intelligence official here in Washington," and said that, as such, he was "in a position to be responsible for the activities" of any Russian spy inside the CIA.
The Russians protested immediately, both to Mr. Collins and later in a statement from their embassy here.
"Russia and the United States have contacts close enough to raise any issue," the embassy statement said. "The investigation of the Ames case claimed to have lasted for nine months. We believe that there was enough time to get in touch with Russian authorities directly and to share [any] concerns before bringing the case to the public."
This week, Russian officials in Moscow have pointed out that they have been told point-blank by the U.S. government that U.S. spying continues and they don't quite understand all the fuss. In their written statement, the Russians stressed a second point: that the two countries have much to lose by overreacting to an espionage case.
"We are concerned over [the] political consequences of this case," the statement said. "Our partnership has undergone several serious tests, lastly in connection with the crisis over Sarajevo. We think we'll cope with this misunderstanding as well. However, there are circles both in the United States and in Russia that are not interested in the friendship of the two major powers."
There was some evidence that the American side was sympathetic to this argument. But in some ways, the Russian statement underscored Mr. Clinton's need to take action.
Just as Mr. Yeltsin is pressured from Russian nationalists who think he is too cozy with the United States, Mr. Clinton has been dodging pot shots from conservatives in Congress who assert that Mr. Clinton and his main Russia adviser, Deputy Secretary ++ of State Strobe Talbott, are too enamored of Mr. Yeltsin, and of the Russians in general.
This week, those critics asked another question: With billions of U.S. dollars in aid in the pipeline for Russia, was it right for Russians to be infiltrating the CIA?
Administration officials said they wanted to placate such critics -- and indicate displeasure to the Russians -- but not at the cost of jeopardizing American-Russian relations.
Giving a diplomat seven days to vacate the country is not the most serious type of expulsion, officials said. And Mr. McCurry pointed out that in 1986, when Cold War tensions were strong, the U.S. expelled 55 Soviet diplomats who were presumed to be affiliated with the KGB.
"That was the time of the adversarial relationship we had with the then-Soviet Union in the Cold War," he said. "This is a much different era."
In the end, this middle-ground approach taken by the Clinton administration appears to be a reconciling of two nearly opposite impulses:
The first is the anger and alarm that this case sent through the U.S. intelligence community. This mood exists not only because a double-agent is alleged to have penetrated the most sensitive reaches of the CIA, but also because Russian agents working for the United States may have been killed in the mid-1980s as a result.
The second -- and competing -- impulse is the universal conviction in the administration that despite the criticism, the U.S.-Russia relationship is fundamentally important to world peace and must be preserved.
"Support of the United States for reform in Russia does not flow from a sense of charity or blind faith," Mr. Clinton said. "Our policy is based on our clear American interests."
"No one has made a compelling case to me, publicly or privately," he added, "that it is not in our national interest to continue to work with the president of Russia and the government of Russia on denuclearization, on cooperation and respect for neighbors, and on economic reform . . . to develop a flourishing market economy that can benefit both their people and ours."