10/12/2012 08:28 EDT | Updated 12/12/2012 05:12 EST

Spy scandal 'will die away' Russian ambassador says

What’s a little espionage between friends?

Russia’s ambassador to Canada, Georgiy Mamedov, is playing down the case of a Canadian navy intelligence officer who was caught selling secrets to Russian agents.

Speaking to a business audience in Toronto on Friday, Mamedov described the case as a minor irritant rather than a full-blown diplomatic scandal. The ambassador predicted it would have little lasting effect on relations between the two countries.

“What you are talking about is very marginal, it will die away,” Mamedov said during a question and answer session after his speech.

Navy Sub.-Lt. Jeffrey Delisle this week pleaded guilty to turning over classified information to Russia. Delisle worked at HMCS Trinity, the Navy’s intelligence centre in Halifax where he was privy to many secrets of Canada and its allies — the U.S., Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Between 2007 and 2011, Delisle was able to copy information onto a floppy disk and USB key and transmit it to Russian agents via drafts in an email account. Delisle, who was divorced and who had declared bankruptcy, was paid $3,000 a month for the information he provided.

While the case has shaken the Canadian military, to Mamedov it’s hardly extraordinary.

“Even friends spy on each other”, he said, adding quickly that Russia isn’t all that interested in Canadian secrets.

“With all due respect to Canada, it’s not the heart of our security concerns.”

Wesley Wark, a security expert at the Munk Centre for International Studies, says he’s not surprised by the ambassador’s response.

“That is the inevitable Russian response to this,” Wark says.

“They have every reason to play it down. You know, don’t let it trouble relations, don’t think differently of us as a country.”

While it may be in Russia’s interest to try to smooth over relations and wait for the spy scandal to blow over, Wark says Canada cannot afford to be quiet about the case. To Wark, the federal government has been far too diplomatic. The Russians, he says, need to know their actions are unacceptable.

“You don’t protest naively with the notion that Russia is going to suddenly stop all its intelligence gathering. But you protest to send a message to say we, Canada, don’t like this.”

Four Russian diplomats were sent home from Canada earlier this year after the Delisle case came to light. The Kremlin, however, denied the diplomats had been expelled.

Since Delisle entered his guilty plea, the federal government has said little publicly about the case. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews did field a few questions on the subject on Thursday, saying that Canada was working with its allies to improve security systems around classified information.

“Certainly, we are very aware of the case and together with our allies are reviewing the procedures that were in place to protect the security of that information,” Toews said.

“This is not a unique situation. It’s happened with our allies. We have worked with our allies when that has occurred and we will continue to do so in the future to make our systems more and more impregnable.