U.S. claims that dozens of Russian diplomats and their spouses cheated to get health care aid meant for the poor drew a sharp rebuke Thursday from a top Russian official who blamed the criminal case on "Russophobic forces" interested in scuttling progress toward Russia-U.S. cooperation in confronting world conflicts.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov made the remarks carried by Russia's state news agency, ITAR-Tass, after charges were announced in New York City against 49 current and former Russian diplomats and their wives.
He called the charges "no more than a cheap spin effort, no more than a desire to fulfill the order of Russophobic forces in the United States."
Ryabkov added: "We regret that attempt to stir up another conflict or dispute, particularly in view of the fact that Moscow and Washington recently have developed a good format of ties regarding big international issues. We wouldn't like to make such links, but in view of reaching some results in the sphere of settling major conflicts, some people in Washington needed to spoil the atmosphere. We can only assess it this way."
Ryabkov's comments came as a State Department spokeswoman in Washington seemed to downplay the announcement by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan, saying the department was reviewing the just-unsealed charges and didn't believe charges against a "handful" of people would damage U.S.-Russia relations.
Bharara said 25 current and former diplomats and 24 spouses were criminally charged in federal court in Manhattan after they underreported incomes to qualify for Medicaid funds even as they spent tens of thousands of dollars on luxury vacations, concert tickets, fine clothing and helicopter rides.
"Diplomacy should be about extending hands, not picking pockets in the host country," Bharara told a news conference.