Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spies and Casting the First Stone

The Daily Telegraph

With a former KGB colonel in the Kremlin, it is hardly surprising that Britain has been implicated in a spying scandal worthy of the Cold War. The star of the show is a fake rock containing a transmitter through which a Russian contact allegedly passed classified information to British diplomats.

While all this is richly comic, it has embarrassed the British government. Rather than denying the allegations, the Foreign Office yesterday declared itself "surprised and concerned," while British Prime Minister Tony Blair attempted to laugh the whole thing off.

But it does have grave implications, both for bilateral relations and for Russian nongovernmental organizations attempting to monitor abuses of power by the Kremlin. Having named four British diplomats, Moscow could well expel them. Ministers will then have to decide whether to reply in kind.

The FSB, the KGB's successor, accused the British of financing NGOs, reflecting President Vladimir Putin's determination to blunt all opposition to his rule. The president is supposedly heeding the warning given by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Given his overweening power, that amounts to paranoia.

Blair may try to pass off the "rock" incident as a joke. But the man he early identified as an ally has become an increasingly unreliable partner, whether over confronting Iran's nuclear ambitions or as a natural gas supplier. The electronic rock has its funny side. But it also symbolizes a serious cooling of relations between Moscow and the West.

The Guardian

The FSB did not paint this as a John Le Carr? spy novel-type operation to recruit highly placed agents but rather one to fund Russian nongovernmental organizations, which of course weren't around in the old days but are subject to Soviet-era smearing now.

Not surprisingly, there has been no confirmation from the British government. It is no secret, though, that Britain, like the rest of the European Union and the United States, supports the development of civil society, free media and an independent judiciary in Russia -- and rightly so. But this is done openly by bodies such as the Westminster Foundation, the European Commission and the Ford Foundation, not MI6 or the CIA.

It is hard to know exactly what is going on. Still, this is all probably linked to the Kremlin's crackdown on NGOs, more evidence of the "authoritarian drift" and "managed democracy" which have become bones of contention between Putin and his normally over-indulgent Western friends, especially since he took over the presidency of the Group of Eight earlier this month. Putin's reply is that stricter regulation is needed to stop Russian groups being used and subverted by foreign elements. How very convenient, then, to discover that the cack-handed Smileys of the post-Cold War era are doing just that. That is surely no coincidence.

The Times of London

Whatever the wisdom of British operations in Moscow, there is a much more serious side to the slew of allegations from Russia about the British presence. They mark yet another aggressive move from Putin. We must assume this is the face of Russia for years to come.

Of all the spying accusations, the nastiest in its implications is that Britain has been supporting human rights groups. The sums of money are hardly large. Russian state television accused the British Embassy of transferring ?23,000 ($41,000) to the Moscow Helsinki Group, a leading human rights group that has repeatedly criticized Putin.

The Foreign Office has said that it has indeed supported rights groups, but that all its efforts were well-known and "proper." The Moscow Helsinki Group said it had not received British funding since 2004 and that Russia's complaints are a pretext for cracking down on such groups. That is surely right. Of all the steps Putin has taken that have cut away at hopes that Russia was moving toward democracy, his assault on human rights groups has been among the worst.

If Putin chooses to make this into a big confrontation, it will show that, taking his cue from the extreme cold gripping Russia, he wants to move his relations with Europe to a new degree of chill.

Time Magazine

On Monday night, Russian state television identified four members of the British Embassy staff whom it -- and the FSB -- claimed are spying inside Russia.

Watching the FSB secret footage of the alleged spies was as thrilling as a new James Bond saga movie. The British spying equipment was allegedly concealed in a simple Russian stone and used for two-way communications with still unidentified Russian traitors. And the British diplomat, pretending to be relieving himself in a Russian public park as an excuse to pick up the malfunctioning stone, was about as convincing a menace as Bond seducing yet another Russian female agent.

The program also charged that the alleged diplomatic spies made financial transfers to several Russian NGOs, including the Moscow Helsinki human rights group that has operated since 1976.

The entire incident is baffling. It's no secret that even friendly countries spy upon each other. But casting NGOs in an enemy role does seem novel. Earlier this month, Putin signed a new restrictive law placing NGOs in Russia, either foreign or domestic, under tight state controls.

In a classic touch of absurdity, the FSB feature on Western spying and using NGOs to hurt Russia came immediately after the clip announcing the release of "The First Circle" television serial, based on the famous novel by Alexander Solzhenitsyn on Soviet labor camps, packed with innocent people arrested as alleged foreign spies. The Cold War may be over, but you'd hardly know from watching Russian television.