November 20, 2006 6:39 pm

Moscow ‘steps up spying in UK’

The suspected poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy, follows growing evidence that Russian intelligence has stepped up its activities in the city in recent years.

Scotland Yard said on Monday it was looking at closed-circuit television tapes as part of its investigation into the suspected poisoning of the 41-year-old ally of Boris Berezovsky, the exiled oligarch who is an implacable opponent of President Vladimir Putin.

There was no hard evidence to link the poisoning to the Kremlin. Thallium, the poison suspected of being used against Mr Litvinenko, is said to be a hallmark of Russia’s intelligence services. But even if toxicology reports confirm this suspicion, many people have passed through Russian intelligence who no longer work for it.

Nonetheless, the case will turn the spotlight on Russia’s intelligence operations in the UK. Mr Putin, a former Soviet KGB officer, is suspected of having raised the agencies’ budgets.

According to private-sector experts and government officials, Russian intelligence operations in London are carried out mostly by the SVR, Russia’s overseas intelligence agency, and the GRU, its military intelligence arm. Operatives work inside and outside the Russian embassy in Kensington, they say. The FSB, the Russian domestic intelligence agency, is mainly domestically focused.

They say the activities are in three main areas: traditional efforts aimed at gathering government information; the collection of sensitive scientific and technological information; and a growing effort to monitor the activity of Russian dissidents in London.

These include efforts to entice companies with useful technologies into Russia. “The Russians have become more active, particularly in areas they consider strategic such as energy and banking,” says Stuart Poole-Robb of Merchant International Group, a London-based corporate intelligence agency.

Experts say Russia is not considered a threat as the Soviet Union was. Rather, a significant concern was that if UK government secrecy was compromised by Russian infiltration it would reduce the willingness of foreign governments to share information with London.

An increase in Russian activity has been accompanied by intelligence operations from other governments, in particular China, whose espionage activities may, according to some estimates, even exceed Russia’s.

In a report last year, the UK parliament’s intelligence and security committee said: “The threat from espionage remains, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Several countries are actively seeking British information and material to advance their own military, technological, political and economic programmes.”

But MI5, charged with counter-intelligence operations in the UK since it was established in 1909, is devoting an ever-smaller proportion of its resources to the issue. According to the committee, the share of MI5 resources devoted to counter-intelligence and counter-espionage activities was 7 per cent in the 2005-6 financial year, down from 10.7 per cent a year earlier and 16 per cent in 2001-02. MI5’s total budget is secret.

A government official said on Monday that the main reason for the declining share of MI5 resources devoted to counter-intelligence and counter-espionage activities was the rapid expansion of the agency’s budget to bolster the fight against terrorism. In absolute terms, the amount spent on such activities had been fairly constant.

In its report last year, the committee expressed concerns that ”because of the necessary focus on counter-terrorism, significant risks are being taken in the area of counter-espionage”. It said the head of MI5 and the home secretary had acknowledged that the UK was “carrying some risk here”.

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