Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 55

Only days after a high-profile visit to St. Petersburg by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (see the Monitor, March 13), Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) announced on March 15 that it had arrested a Russian citizen on charges of having spied for Britain. Russian authorities released few details related to the arrest, but did say that the accused had been arrested on Russian territory, was being held in Lefortovo prison in Moscow and that a criminal case had been opened. An FSB spokesman also claimed that the alleged agent had worked for British intelligence in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, and that Estonian security services had been involved in the agent’s activities. Estonian media, quoting government sources, speculated yesterday that Moscow’s effort to drag Estonia into the spy case was probably done for domestic Russian political reasons. Since the demise of the Soviet Union Moscow has frequently accused Baltic countries of aiding NATO in trying to recruit Russian agents.

Western reports yesterday noted that Moscow appeared to be playing down the arrest, refusing to give additional details about the case and avoiding the fanfare that usually accompanies such occurrences. One report said that, unlike espionage wrangles generally, Russian television dropped all mention of this one (Reuters, March 16). The British embassy has had nothing to say about the arrest.

Russia and Britain have had several spy rows over the past ten years. In 1994 London expelled a Russian diplomat following Moscow’s expulsion of a man said to be the head of Britain’s SIS foreign intelligence service in Russia. Two years later, in April of 1996, a Russian Foreign Ministry official by the name of Platon Obukhov was arrested for passing secrets to British agents. Later that year the two countries engaged in a major series of tit-for-tat expulsions that saw Russia expel nine British diplomats while London responded by ordering out four Russian diplomats.

Obukhov, who is the author of several spy thrillers, had reportedly acknowledged being recruited by British intelligence while he was a diplomat in Norway in the early 1990s. He was originally found by a court to be mentally unstable, and his trial on espionage charges has since been postponed several times. The most recent postponement occurred on Tuesday, the day before the latest arrest took place (Reuters, BBC, Russian agencies, March 15; The Guardian, March 16).

With respect to Russian-British relations, the significance of this week’s arrest remains unclear. In responding to the apprehension of Russian agents in other countries, spokesmen for Russia’s intelligence services frequently make the claim that arrests for spying occur for reasons of politics rather than for reasons stemming purely from intelligence considerations. If that is true in this case, then the arrest–even if made to boost acting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s presidential election campaign and to intimidate Estonia–seemed expressly designed also to embarrass British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The British leader, after all, had endured considerable criticism from political opponents at home and from human rights groups worldwide in agreeing to meet with Putin in St. Petersburg last weekend. Blair, moreover, had muted British criticism of the war in Chechnya during his talks with Putin, and had had nothing but nice things to say about the Russian prime minister in the aftermath of their talks. indeed, Russian sources were quick to jump to the conclusion that Blair’s visit had been intended at least in part as an implicit endorsement–by Britain and the West–of Putin’s presidential candidacy.

Nor could Blair shrug off the arrest as the action of overzealous Russian counterintelligence agents. Putin was himself a career KGB official, then served as head of the FSB from 1998 until his appointment as prime minister last August. Since then he has moved a number of intelligence officials into key government posts. The FSB is perhaps his key power base, and it seems unthinkable that the FSB would move on a matter like this without Putin’s direct participation. The BBC observed on Wednesday that the arrest would be an embarrassment for Britain, coming so soon as it did after Blair’s visit. The Guardian suggested yesterday it could “sour newly forged bonds” between Blair and Putin (BBC, March 15; The Guardian, March 16).