Putin foes choose ‘Lon­don­grad’ and droves of spies fol­low

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NATIONAL REPORT - By Ellen Barry

LONDON >> In 2014, Rus­sian op­po­si­tion fig­ure Vladimir L. Ashurkov fled Moscow for London and breathed a sigh of re­lief. Af­ter months of be­ing fol­lowed by the Krem­lin’s in­tel­li­gence agents to ev­ery meet­ing, cul­mi­nat­ing in a tele­vised raid of his apart­ment, he fi­nally let his guard down, dis­ap­pear­ing into the el­e­gant, poly­glot streets of Kens­ing­ton.

Six months passed be­fore he re­al­ized that he was still be­ing fol­lowed.

An old friend re­turned from a trip to Rus­sia with un­nerv­ing news: In Moscow, se­cu­rity of­fi­cials had asked de­tailed ques­tions about a pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion he had with Ashurkov in a London cafe. Af­ter that, Ashurkov learned to look for Rus­sian agents re­flex­ively — men in dark suits sit­ting alone at emi­gre gath­er­ings, din­ner-party ac­quain­tances ru­mored to be in­for­mants.

“You can’t do much about it,” he said. “Even af­ter you es­cape from Moscow to London, you know they have long hands.”

Rus­sia now has more in­tel­li­gence agents de­ployed in London than at the height of the Cold War, for­mer Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials have said. They serve a va­ri­ety of func­tions, in­clud­ing build­ing con­tacts among Bri­tish politi­cians. But the most im­por­tant task is to keep an eye on the hun­dreds of heavy­weight Rus­sians — those aligned with Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, and those ar­rayed against him — who have built lives in Bri­tain, at­tracted by its prop­erty mar­ket and bank­ing sys­tem.

THE poi­son­ing last week of Sergei V. Skri­pal, a re­tired Rus­sian dou­ble agent, and his daugh­ter has put pres­sure on the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment to rein them in.

Bri­tish au­thor­i­ties once de­voted abun­dant re­sources to track­ing the move­ment of Soviet agents here. But in re­cent years ter­ror­ist threats have be­come the clear pri­or­ity, and MI5 has fewer re­sources to keep pace with Rus­sia’s ex­pand­ing op­er­a­tions, said John Bayliss, who re­tired from the Gov­ern­ment Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Head­quar­ters, Bri­tain’s elec­tronic in­tel­li­gence agency, in 2010 and now lec­tures on se­cu­rity threats.

“I think it’s sort of ac­cepted that there are more spies in London now than there were at the height of the Cold War,” he said. “In the Cold War it was quite dif­fi­cult for Rus­sians to move around the coun­try; they were re­stricted out­side London. But now they’ve pretty much got free move­ment; they can go any­where. We haven’t got enough peo­ple to fol­low ev­ery­body all the time.”

London is also a base for com­mer­cial in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing firms, like the one headed by for­mer MI6 agent Christo­pher Steele, who built a dossier on Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s links with Putin. The Rus­sian gov­ern­ment is keenly in­ter­ested in these ef­forts and their sources.

AS A young KGB of­fi­cer, Putin was first as­signed to a sta­tion in the East Ger­man city of Dres­den, which dis­patched spies to steal tech­no­log­i­cal se­crets and com­pro­mise and re­cruit in­flu­en­tial fig­ures, in both West and East Ger­many. As Rus­sia’s leader he has ex­panded for­eign in­tel­li­gence net­works be­yond Cold War lev­els, said Mark Ga­le­otti, a Rus­sia ex­pert at the In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions in Prague.

“There is a sense that Rus­sia is geopo­lit­i­cally in com­pe­ti­tion with the West,” he said. “In these cur­rent cir­cum­stances, spies are rel­a­tively cheap and rel­a­tively ef­fec­tive. This is the way Putin runs his state.”

Over the last 10 years, Bri­tain has granted po­lit­i­cal asy­lum to a pa­rade of Putin’s crit­ics, big and small, who have blended seam­lessly into “Lon­don­grad.” It is a place where, as one denizen ex­plained, a bu­reau­crat on va­ca­tion could dine cor­dially with a dis­si­dent nov­el­ist who speaks at anti-Putin ral­lies.

A for­mer Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity in line with pro­to­cols, de­scribed it as “a lot of Putin’s friends, and for­mer friends, and en­e­mies and al­lies, all swirling around to­gether in this mon­eyed scene.”

“And of course half of them send their kids to Bri­tish pub­lic schools,” the for­mer of­fi­cial added, us­ing the Bri­tish term for pri­vate schools.

In in­ter­views, prom­i­nent Rus­sians here de­scribed a grow­ing aware­ness that they were un­der close watch by the Krem­lin.

Yevgeny Chich­varkin, a mo­bile-phone ty­coon who com­plained pub­licly about of­fi­cial cor­rup­tion, fled Moscow for London in 2009 and was later ac­cused of kid­nap­ping and black­mail. Chich­varkin, who met for an in­ter­view in a fash­ion­ably moth-eaten pink cardi­gan and pan­taloons printed with comic strips, now owns He­donism, a May­fair wine shop where one bot­tle of vin­tage co­gnac is priced at $340,000.

Chich­varkin said he had re­al­ized that he was un­der sur­veil­lance shortly af­ter mov­ing here, when he ob­served a group of two or three men stand­ing for hours around 100 yards from his front door. Peer­ing at them more closely, he saw that they were pass­ing the time by peel­ing and eat­ing sun­flower seeds, a habit com­mon among men from the Rus­sian coun­try­side.

Still, Chich­varkin said he felt far safer in London than in Moscow, par­tic­u­larly af­ter the 2015 as­sas­si­na­tion of prom­i­nent op­po­si­tion leader Boris Y. Nemtsov. He said that Rus­sian se­cu­rity per­son­nel were far more con­strained on Bri­tish soil

— “In Moscow they can use guns,” he said.

Mikhail B. Khodor­kovsky, a Rus­sian ty­coon who served a decade in a Rus­sian prison and re­ceived asy­lum here last year, wan­ders London without body­guards, and can be seen in line for take­out cof­fee at the sand­wich chain Pret a Manger. For his part, Ashurkov, who was granted po­lit­i­cal asy­lum in March 2015, learned to re­lax in London af­ter what he de­scribed as “a pe­riod of para­noia.”

“I know that Rus­sian se­cu­rity ser­vices are ca­pa­ble of as­sas­si­na­tions in London or any part of the world if a de­ci­sion is made in Moscow, but you can­not think about it all the time,” he said.

SKRI­PAL is the se­cond for­mer Rus­sian agent to be poi­soned on Bri­tish soil, af­ter the 2006 killing of Alexan­der V. Litvi­nenko, which, a Bri­tish in­quiry con­cluded nearly 10 years later, was in all like­li­hood or­dered by the Krem­lin. The Bri­tish gov­ern­ment took mod­est coun­ter­mea­sures, and the two men ac­cused of the killing re­main at large in Rus­sia.

Bill Brow­der, a wealthy in­vestor who has led in­ter­na­tional cam­paigns to im­pose sanc­tions on Putin and his as­so­ciates over cor­rup­tion and hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions, says the poi­son­ing of Skri­pal means that peo­ple like him are at greater risk.

“The Bri­tish gov­ern­ment has cre­ated a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion by not cre­at­ing con­se­quences for Litvi­nenko,” said Brow­der.

For years the ful­crum of London’s anti-Putin op­po­si­tion was Boris A. Bere­zovsky, a bil­lion­aire who broke bit­terly with Putin and re­ceived po­lit­i­cal asy­lum in 2003. Lord Ti­mothy Bell, who was close to Bere­zovsky, said he had of­ten sat in pub­lic places as his friend pointed out the agents fol­low­ing him.

Bere­zovsky em­ployed high-priced se­cu­rity ser­vices, staffed by for­mer of­fi­cers in the Is­raeli mil­i­tary or French For­eign Le­gion. But the cost be­came un­man­age­able as his for­tune di­min­ished, and the num­ber grad­u­ally dropped from six to four to three to two, Bell said. Only one body­guard was guard­ing him in 2013, when he was found dead in the locked bath­room of a manor house.

“He used to say, ‘He’s not a body­guard, he’s a wit­ness,’” Bell said.


A po­lice tent Mon­day cov­ered the the spot where for­mer Rus­sian dou­ble agent Sergei V. Skri­pal and his daugh­ter Yu­lia were found crit­i­cally ill fol­low­ing ex­po­sure to a nerve agent in Sal­is­bury, Eng­land.

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