Russia struck back in the spy vs. spy squabble with the West on Thursday, saying an American diplomat urged two Russian men to collect secret plans for Russia's most sophisticated battle tank.
Western arms experts expressed surprise at the news that the T-82 tank even exists; the spokesman for Russia's top spy-catching agency said Thursday's announcement was the first confirmation of its existence.
It was the latest in a flurry of charges and countercharges by Russian and Western intelligence agencies. (See box)
Alexander Mikhailov, spokesman for Russia's Federal Counterintelligence Service, said the American diplomat in the tank case was Kelli Ann Hamilton.
The switchboard operator at the U.S. Embassy said there was no one there by that name. But a phone list from last spring lists a Kelli Hamilton as a second secretary at the embassy.
"We don't comment on allegations of intelligence activities," an embassy spokesman said.
Mikhailov said one of the two Russian men, 23-year-old businessman Maxim Alyoshin, contacted Hamilton in January 1993, offering to gather secrets about the Russian tank. They met several times inside the embassy.
Alyoshin said he wanted to work for U.S. intelligence to get $50,000 to pay his debts, Mikhailov said, adding that the man apparently never was paid.
Mikhailov said the diplomat told Alyoshin to gather information about Uralvagonzavod, a plant in the Urals city of Nizhny Tagil that produces the T-82 tanks.
In Nizhny Tagil, Alyoshin met Igor Motorin, a 39-year-old worker at the tank plant, who obtained four copies of the factory's general plan, Mikhailov said. Alyoshin returned to Moscow and gave the documents to the diplomat, who then urged him to get secret data on the T-82 tank's armor and electronics, the spokesman said.
The two Russians failed to get the information, Mikhailov said, and were detained by authorities last March.
There were no details available on the tank, although Western experts said it would be the latest in the line of Russia's T-80 main battle tanks.
Mikhailov said legal proceedings against the two men were dropped because they confessed, cooperated with authorities and caused no damage to Russian security.
Mikhailov denied the case had any connection to the arrest of Aldrich Ames, a 31-year CIA veteran, and his wife, Rosario.
But one analyst said the connection was obvious.
Spies are caught all the time, said Leonid Mlechin, a world affairs analyst for the daily Izvestia newspaper, but the "timing for disclosures is selected by politicians."
Spy vs. spy: a chronology
Feb. 21: FBI arrests CIA official Aldrich Ames and his wife, Rosario, on charges they had spied for the Kremlin since 1985.
Feb. 23: Washington demands Russia make amends for Ames spying case.
Feb. 25: United States orders expulsion of Russian diplomat Alexander Lysenko, chief of Russia's intelligence station in Washington.
Feb. 28: Russia orders expulsion of American diplomat James Morris, presumed to be the CIA station chief in Moscow.
March 1: Russia announces January arrest of a senior defense industry executive accused of spying for Britain for the past year.
March 3: Russia says U.S. diplomat encouraged two Russian men to gather secret data on an advanced Russian battle tank.