Britain and Russia faced fresh diplomatic confrontation last night after a British diplomat was accused of spying.
The Foreign Office confirmed the Russians suspected a senior diplomat in the British embassy’s trade section of espionage. Local media in Moscow named him as Chris Bowers.
«I can confirm that a member of the British staff is suspected of spying by the Russians,» the Foreign Office said last night. «He is the acting director of UK Trade and Industry. But we do not comment on intelligence matters.» A Russian intelligence source was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying: «The activities of Christopher Bowers, a counsellor at the British embassy in Russia, and probably, simultaneously a senior officer with British intelligence, are giving rise to questions among Russian intelligence services.»
The accusation came just hours after Russia’s ambassador in Britain, Yuri Fedotov, responded angrily to a string of reports quoting unnamed British security officials emphasising the security threat posed by Russian spies in Britain. He singled out a report on BBC’s Newsnight, in which a security source said there was Russian «state involvement» in the killing of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and an attempt on the life of another dissident, Boris Berezovsky.
MI5 has bolstered its counter-espionage efforts for the first time since the end of the cold war, mainly against Russian and Chinese spies in London. Counter-intelligence officers claim there are 30 agents operating out of the Russian embassy and trade mission in London — «the same level as in Soviet times».
«I want to express my disappointment over the campaign organised against Russia recently in the British media,» Fedotov told the Guardian. «There have been allegations made on the basis of interviews with officials allegedly belonging to counter-intelligence in MI5. If they really gave those interviews, then that is part of the official structures accusing the Russian government of involvement in criminal cases; it is only natural for those officials to confirm or deny these allegations.»
Asked who he thought was organising the alleged campaign, the ambassador said: «It is hard to say, but this campaign coincided with the meeting between Gordon Brown and Dmitry Medvedev. It seems there are some people who do not like the improvement in our relations.»
Reports of Brown’s’s meeting with Russia’s president at the G8 summit this week suggested that none of the most divisive issues in bilateral relations — the Litvinenko affair, Russia’s closing of two British Council offices and the handling of the TNK-BP joint oil venture — had been resolved.
Fedotov, ambassador to London since 2005, said the meeting had been useful, but added «one meeting is usually not enough» to deal with complex issues.