The arrest of 10 Russian spies in the US cannot help relations between the two countries. But it is to be hoped that it will not lead to a breach.

The recent “reset” has lent a surprisingly constructive tone to the bilateral relationship. This has gone beyond chummy meetings between Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in Washington. It has yielded an agreement on strategic nuclear weapons and Russian support for sanctions on Iran. Moreover, the detente has not been confined to the Washington-Moscow axis. Russian relations with central Europe have improved and there has even been a thaw in the brittle exchanges between Russia and the UK. It would be a shame were this momentum to be lost.

Hopefully, it will not be. The mission that has been uncovered looks more farcical than sinister. On the basis of what has so far been disclosed, it should be possible to avoid a major rift. The agents in question had operated under “deep cover” for some years; their mission apparently to infiltrate policymaking circles. But rather than infiltrating, they themselves were compromised.

Russia will not relish the exposure of its agents. But Moscow should ask itself why such operations are necessary. Its espionage activities have become a significant source of irritation in the west. The Litvinenko murder, for instance, atomised relations with the UK. Heavy-handed Russian spying caused the head of Britain’s MI5, Jonathan Evans, to remark acidly three years ago that this was distracting his agency from the fight against jihadist groups.

On past form, the Russians will feel obliged to retaliate. But they would do better to reflect on what is gained from intrusive spying in the US and Europe. The answer seems to be little and the casualty is trust. Spying has long been a noble profession in Russia. But if Moscow wants better relations with the west, it must be more discriminate about its snooping.

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