By Neil Mackay in the Sunday Herald
Murray reported what he calls “this blatant attempt to recruit me” to British security officers at the embassy….To this day, Murray is unsure whether the offer of sex with the Russian girls was an attempt to bribe him into working for the Kremlin or whether it was the set-up for a blackmail sting which would have coerced him into working for Russian intelligence.
TO DISSIDENT Russian intelligence officers now in exile or in hiding around the world and British intelligence operatives, July 9 this year was a seismic date. On that day legislators in the Duma – the Russian state parliament – unanimously approved new laws which allowed Russia’s Federal Security Service to hunt down and kill enemies of the state anywhere on the face of the Earth.
One British intelligence source said: “This marked a blatant return to the bad old days of the cold war when the KGB thought it could act with impunity anywhere it pleased.”
These so-called “Hunter-Killer” powers also curtailed the right of the Russian media – already cowed and under the control of the Kremlin – to report on these operations. However, the enactment of these new laws only put on a legal footing powers which Russian intelligence had been using extra-judicially for years.
In Chechnya, the assassination of enemies of Russia is now so common that it scarcely bears comment, and in 2004 two Russian agents were arrested and sentenced to death in Qatar for the killing of exiled Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. The Russian team hunted him down and planted a bomb in his car. The Qatari court ruled that the killing was sanctioned by “the Russian leadership”. The men were not executed but sent back to Russia following promises from the Kremlin that they would be imprisoned. Rumour has it that they were decorated for the assassination operation.
Akhmed Zakayev, a friend of Alexander Litvinenko and a former field commander in the first Chechen war who later became the deputy prime minister of Chechnya, says the killing of Litvinenko proved to the British people that Putin was “destroying democratic freedoms in Russia and beyond”.
Zakayev, who beat an attempt by Russia to extradite him from the UK, added: “Putin is exporting his terror tactics in Chechnya to the UK and to London streets.” Pointing out that Litvinenko had recently been granted British citizenship following his flight from Moscow after exposing criminal activities by Russian intelligence, Zakayev said: “Putin is now carrying out acts of terror against British citizens. Britain should see this as an act of terrorism against this nation.”
British intelligence estimates that at least 30 Russian spies are operating in the UK. Most are from the GRU, Russian military intelligence, and the SVR, the overseas intelligence service equivalent to MI6. Most are based at the Russian embassy and have diplomatic status. As well as carrying out “traditional” espionage activities such as gathering military, political and industrial secrets, they are also believed to be focusing on Russian dissidents and Chechen rebels who are living in exile in the UK.
British intelligence sources are fearful of the UK’s ability to tackle the gathering threat from the Kremlin. Counter-espionage – monitoring the actions of foreign spies in the UK – now accounts for just 6% of MI5’s budget. This drastic reduction in resources since the days of the cold war is down to MI5 being recalibrated to tackle the al-Qaeda franchise. The director of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, told parliament’s intelligence and security committee that “there’s not less of it foreign espionage about, but we are doing less work on it”.
MI5 has stated that at least 20 foreign intelligence services are “operating against the interests of Britain … and the greatest concern is aroused by the Russians”. MI5 has also said that the number of Russian intelligence operatives in the UK has not declined since the Soviet era.
Putin has put spying at the heart of his foreign policy since his rise to power in 2000. The UK is a key target because of the country’s status as “American ally number one”, Britain’s role as a key leading member of Nato and due to the fact that so many of Putin’s enemies are now living in exile in the UK.
MI5 has issued bulletins to staff and other security and intelligence services asking them to keep track of the movement of Russian diplomats thought to be engaged in spying. One bulletin said that Russian intelligence posed a “substantial” threat to the UK. It also told recipients to keep a look out for Russian diplomatic car licence plates.
Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, has had first-hand experience of the continuing attempts by Russia to spy on Britain. In 1996-97, he was first secretary to the British embassy in Warsaw, Poland, when Russian intelligence made a clumsy attempt to recruit him using sex as the lure.
He was due to attend a friend’s stag night at an Irish bar in the centre of Warsaw but because of work commitments arrived two hours late. The barman informed him that his friends had moved on to a strip joint nearby. “When I arrived at the strip club,” says Murray, “this Russian guy jumps up and calls me by my name and says I know you drink malt whisky, can I get you a Glenfiddich?’. With him were two beautiful Russian girls dressed in their underwear. He told me he was with a Russian trade delegation and said there was a limo outside and that I could take the girls to a house in the suburbs. I declined, made some small talk, finished my drink and then left.”
Murray reported what he calls “this blatant attempt to recruit me” to British security officers at the embassy. They showed him a photo album of known Russian spies in Warsaw. “Unsurprisingly, my friend from the trade delegation’ was in the book,” Murray adds. “It was an astonishingly up-front and unsubtle approach.” To this day, Murray is unsure whether the offer of sex with the Russian girls was an attempt to bribe him into working for the Kremlin or whether it was the set-up for a blackmail sting which would have coerced him into working for Russian intelligence.