US relations with Moscow during and after the Cold War have been marred by diplomatic dustups ranging from espionage scandals to an Olympics boycott. Current tensions, highlighted by President Barack Obama’s decision to impose sanctions and expel 35 Russia diplomats, is exceptional because it stems from US allegations of Russian cyber meddling in the presidential election and because it is playing out during a White House transition. It also coincides with a collapse of military-to-military relations and nervousness in Europe over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine.
Some of the more significant episodes of the past three decades:
May 2013: A US diplomat was expelled after the Kremlin’s security services said he tried to recruit a Russian agent, and they displayed tradecraft tools that seemed straight from a spy thriller: wigs, packets of cash, a knife, map and compass, and a letter promising millions for “long-term cooperation.” The FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, identified the diplomat as Ryan Fogle, a third secretary at the US Embassy in Moscow.
The Fogle case was a reminder that years after the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia and the United States still spy on each other and maintain active counterespionage operations.
December 2012: President Vladimir Putin signed into law a ban on adoptions of Russian children by American citizens. The ban was a blow to US-Russian diplomatic relations and was imposed in response to Russian accusations of abuses of adopted Russian children in the United States. It was included in a broader Russian law retaliating for US passage of the Magnitsky Act, an effort to punish Russian human rights violators.
July 2010: In the biggest spy swap since the Cold War, 10 confessed Russian agents who infiltrated suburban America as “sleeper” agents were ordered deported in exchange for four people convicted of betraying Moscow to the West. The agents, many speaking in heavy Russian accents despite having spent years in the US, pleaded guilty to conspiracy, were sentenced to time served and ordered out of the country. The 10 were accused of embedding themselves in ordinary American life while leading double lives complete with false passports, secret code words, fake names, and encrypted radio.
February 2001: A veteran FBI counterintelligence agent, Robert P. Hanssen, was arrested and charged with committing espionage for Russia and the former Soviet Union by providing highly classified national security information to intelligence officers assigned to the Soviet embassy in Washington. In the aftermath, the US expelled 50 Russian diplomats. The FBI has called Hanssen the most damaging spy in the bureau’s history.
February 1994: The US expelled Russian senior intelligence officer Alexander Lysenko, saying he was in a position to be responsible for the spying of CIA agency Aldrich Ames. This was just days after Ames and his wife, Rosario, were arrested on charges of selling secrets to Moscow from at least 1985 to 1993. Even in expelling Lysenko, the administration of President Bill Clinton softened the blow by emphasizing the importance of strong ties with Russia and the continuation of reforms under Boris Yeltsin, who was seen as key to Russia’s move toward democracy.
October 1986: In one of the more memorable tit-for-tat expulsions for alleged espionage activities, President Ronald Reagan ordered 55 Soviet diplomats in Washington and San Francisco to leave the US, shortly after expelling 25 others from the Soviet mission to the United Nations. The Soviets retaliated each time, kicking out American diplomats and announcing that the US missions in Moscow and Leningrad could no longer employ Soviet workers.
March 1980: In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, President Jimmy Carter announced the United States would boycott the Summer Olympic Games scheduled to be held in Moscow. He acted when the Soviets refused to comply with Carter’s ultimatum for the withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan by February. The Soviets retaliated by leading a communist-bloc boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games held in Los Angeles. The Soviet army did not leave Afghanistan until 1989.