Blows Below the Belt
- By Andrei Soldatov
- Jul. 15 2008 00:00
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The latest round in a boxing match between Russia's and Britain's secret services began on July 4, when an article appeared in the British press quoting the MI5 counterespionage unit as saying that the number of Russian spies flooding the country had made Russia the third-greatest threat to Britain after Iran and al-Qaida. Meanwhile, in the Daily Mail, Member of Parliament Andrew MacKinley was accused of meeting too frequently with Alexander Polyakov, a counselor at the Russian Embassy who the MI5 suspects reports to Russian intelligence.
But that was only the beginning. On the BBC "Newsnight" program on July 7, an anonymous MI5 source stated that the agency considers the Russian government responsible for the poisoning death in London of former Federal Security Service agent Alexander Litvinenko and for the attempted murder of self-exiled billionaire Boris Berezovsky.
The Kremlin retaliated in a statement to RIA-Novosti on Thursday, when a source with the Federal Security Service claimed that Chris Bowers, the British Embassy's director of trade and finance, was a British intelligence agent.
Moscow's aggressive reaction underscores just how different the two countries' methods are in the prolonged conflict. For the past year, the British government has limited its reactions to political statements protesting Litvinenko's death, while Moscow has used more blunt instruments.
The British have initiated only one spy scandal in the past few years. In fall 2007, a former British Army cadet, Peter Hill, was arrested in Leeds. But this was a case of pure provocation. The cadet had written a letter to the Russian Embassy offering cooperation, but it was intercepted by the MI5. A British agent posing as a Russian intelligence operative named Andrei met with Hill in a cafe. The result: Hill spent a few months in jail, but all charges were later dropped. It is clear that Russian intelligence did not suffer in any way from this operation for the simple reason that it was not involved.
Britain behaved exactly the same way in the Litvinenko affair. The British prosecutor's office was careful to name only the prime suspect in the murder case, Andrei Lugovoi, but not the person or entity that ordered the killing or their possible motive. This was a deliberate attempt to avoid having to pose any awkward questions to the Kremlin.
Sanctions against Russia were limited to dissolving a commission on the struggle against terrorism -- a nonfunctioning body for all intents and purposes -- and four Russian diplomats were expelled from London in July 2007. But this was not because the Kremlin had ordered Litvinenko's murder. It was because Russia refused to extradite a Russian national to stand trial in a foreign country, something that would have violated its own Constitution.
The ensuing BBC episode did not help matters. The MI5 source offered only his opinion and not the official position of the agency. Sure enough, a few days later, a Downing Street spokesman repudiated the unidentified source and announced that MI5 did not have the authority to make official statements and that Litvinenko was killed by a single individual who should stand trial.
The problem is that Moscow -- in contrast to London -- did not constrain itself in this battle of the spies. While the British are content to complain about the number of Russian spies roaming their country, the Kremlin takes the more drastic steps of shutting down the British Council in Russia and sending FSB agents into TNK-BP. While the British suggest that one of their army cadets is getting a little too cozy with the Russian Embassy staff, the FSB delivers a knockout blow, pushing a high-ranking diplomat out of a group involved in the sensitive TNK-BP negotiations.
These differing approaches reflect the different cultures in the two countries. The British apparently feel that it is necessary to keep the door open for compromise at all times, while officials in the Kremlin consider this approach a sign of weakness. It resembles some sort of strange boxing match in which the British fighter constantly appeals to the referee and the audience, while his Russian opponent punches him repeatedly below the belt.
Andrei Soldatov, a columnist for Novaya Gazeta, is director of Agentura.ru Studies and Research Center, which specializes in terrorism and intelligence issues.