WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A spy swap unveiled on Thursday lifts the threat of Cold War intrigue putting a chill on improving U.S.-Russia ties but could fuel Republican accusations that President Barack Obama is being soft on Moscow.
Guilty pleas in court by 10 members of an alleged Russian spy ring cleared the way for their exchange for four people held in Russia on charges of contacts with Western intelligence agencies.
* The deal -- and the speed with which it was done -- reflects a mutual desire by the White House and the Kremlin to prevent the spy scandal from interfering with a “reset” in relations that Obama has made a key part of his foreign policy.
The arrests of suspects living undercover in the United States and accused of trying to infiltrate policymaking circles came just days after a chummy White House meeting between Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last month.
* Neither country wanted the fallout to harm relations that had warmed significantly since hitting a post-Cold War low with Russia’s 2008 war against neighboring Georgia.
With the damage averted, the positive trend can continue.
Russia is counting on U.S. backing to clinch entry into the World Trade Organization, where it is the largest economy still banging on the doors after a 17-year accession campaign.
Obama needs Russia on his side for efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program, keep supply lines open to forces in Afghanistan and advance his goal of progress toward a world without nuclear arms.
* The flipside for Obama is that, by agreeing to a spy swap, he will give opposition Republicans an opening for further criticism that the Democratic president has been too soft on Russia and weak on national security.
Obama is seeking U.S. Senate ratification of a new nuclear arms control treaty that he and Medvedev signed in April calling for a 30 percent cut in strategic nuclear arsenals.
Some Republicans have already voiced concerns about the new START treaty and questions remain about whether Obama can meet his target for winning Senate approval by the end of the year.
With pivotal U.S. congressional elections looming in November, Republicans could also use the spy swap to paint Obama and his Democrats as too willing to give in to a former Cold War foe occasionally still at odds with Washington.
Although the Russian agents are not thought to have made much headway, the FBI devoted years of surveillance to the case. The prisoner swap means those efforts will not lead to jail terms, raising questions about whether others will be deterred from spying in the United States.
Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; editing by Patricia Wilson and John O'Callaghan