LONDON (Reuters) - Russia could one day pose as great a threat to Britain’s security as it did during the Cold War, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond warned on Tuesday, and London had stepped up gathering intelligence on Moscow in response.
Hammond, responsible for Britain’s MI6 overseas spy agency, said Britain and its allies had sought to work with the Kremlin since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and to draw President Vladimir Putin’s Russia into a “rules-based” international system.
But he said Putin, who has held sway over Russia since 1999, had spurned those efforts and instead opted to illegally annex Crimea and use Russian troops to destabilise eastern Ukraine. Putin denies he has sent troops and weapons to support pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“We are now faced with a Russian leader bent not on joining the international rules-based system which keeps the peace between nations, but on subverting it,” Hammond said in a speech in London.
“We are in familiar territory for anyone over the age of about 50, with Russia’s aggressive behaviour a stark reminder it has the potential to pose the single greatest threat to our security.”
During the Cold War, London was a hotbed of espionage. In 1971, the government of Prime Minister Edward Heath expelled more than 100 Soviet diplomats for spying, an order that affected 20 percent of all Soviet diplomats in Britain.
In 1978, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov died in London after being stabbed in the leg by a poison-tipped umbrella. A Bulgarian newspaper said that while the suspected killer was trained by Bulgarian secret police, the case was discussed with the KGB in Moscow.
Hammond’s intervention was meant to convey strong British government anger over what it views as an unacceptable increase in Russian military flights close to British airspace, and to signal it wants Moscow to help a fragile ceasefire in eastern Ukraine hold.
In response to a question, Hammond said he would ask his advisers to consider whether to publicise to the Russian people information about assets held in Britain by senior Russian goverment figures, to put pressure on the Kremlin.
Hammond stressed that gathering intelligence on Russian capabilities and intentions would remain a vital part of Britain’s intelligence effort for the foreseeable future, saying that was why it was looking for more Russian-speakers.
“It is no coincidence that all the agencies are recruiting Russian speakers again,” he said.
All three spy agencies, including the domestic MI5 intelligence service and the GCHQ eavesdropping centre, have placed public adverisements looking for Russian-speaking intelligence analysts or language specialists.
The ads tell applicants not to discuss the process with anyone except their partner or a close family member.
Hammond said the intelligence services had played a key role in identifying some of the principal targets for the European Union’s sanctions regime against Russia.
He said last week that the EU would prepare possible new sanctions on Russia for its involvement in the Ukraine conflict that could be imposed quickly if a ceasefire agreement was broken.
Russia’s steps to modernise its military and its increasingly aggressive stance, which last year resulted in more than 100 NATO interceptions of Russian aircraft, were also “significant causes for concern”, said Hammond.
Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko reacted coolly.
“Hammond remarks ... prove John Le Carre right,” he wrote on his official Twitter feed, referring to the British spy novel author. “Intelligence services are a spiritual home of British political elite.”
Hammond said state adversaries like Russia, combined with international terrorist organisations and the threat of a “lone wolf” attack, meant unprecedented demands were being placed on Britain’s security services.
He strongly criticised comments by Muslim campaign group CAGE blaming the intelligence services for radicalising the Islamic militant known as “Jihadi John”.
“We are absolutely clear: the responsibility for acts of terror rests with those who commit them. But a huge burden of responsibility also lies with those who act as apologists for them,” he said.
Additional reporting by Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Giles Elgood