Moscow spinning new web of spies in UK
Russian intelligence chiefs rebuild British network broken up after Salisbury attack
RUSSIA’S foreign intelligence service is trying to set up a new spy network in Britain after the military unit behind the Salisbury nerve agent attack was dismantled in the UK, according to well-placed sources.
Authorities are increasingly concerned at attempts by the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, to reestablish a foothold in Britain.
Officials are confident that the GRU, the agency responsible for the attempted assassination of Colonel Sergei Skripal, has been effectively neutralised.
It follows a detailed counter-terrorism and intelligence-led investigation into the use of weapons grade Novichok nerve agent that exposed the GRU’s network of agents in the UK and across Europe.
But it is now understood that the SVR – the equivalent of Britain’s MI6 – has been ordered by the Kremlin to resume operations in Britain. The view among British intelligence officials is that the SVR is a more effective and dangerous organisation than the GRU and poses a bigger threat.
A senior Government source said: “We are more fearful of what we don’t know about the SVR compared to all the things we do know about the GRU.
“If Moscow is now giving more resources to the SVR and more freedom to operate in the UK, which is what we believe is happening, then that is of far greater concern because they are a more professional outfit.”
A second source said: “The GRU has been severely impacted by our inquiries into Salisbury,” while another said it would take years for it to regroup.
The Prime Minister pledged to dismantle the GRU’s networks when she unmasked the organisation as being behind the nerve agent attack in a
‘We are more fearful of what we don’t know about the SVR compared to what we do know about the GRU’
statement to Parliament in September. British authorities are said to be confident they know “everything worth knowing” about the assassination attempt, including the chain of command right up to Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
The mass expulsion of spies from the Russian embassies in Europe and the US also played a role in disrupting Russia’s intelligence network abroad.
The UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats and the US 60 more in retaliation for the nerve agent attack in March last year. British officials were certain that they were GRU and SVR spies and that in expelling them had unpicked the
British authorities are confident they know “everything worth knowing” about the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal, including a trail right up to Vladimir Putin.
The Russian intelligence agency behind the Salisbury nerve agent attack has been dismantled in the UK and will remain out of action for years to come, according to government sources.
The threat posed by the GRU, which carried out the attempted assassination of Skripal last March, has been severely curtailed as a result of the counterterror investigation that exposed the agents who carried out the attack. Separate sources have told The Sunday
Telegraph that details of the plot have been well established, including the chain of command right up to Mr Putin that gave the green light for the use of weapons-grade nerve agent on British soil.
“We are confident we know everything we need to know about Salisbury,” said the source, adding: “It will take the GRU decades to regain a foothold back in the UK.”
The GRU’s operations have been exposed in part by a series of blunders that included giving many of its agents consecutive passport numbers. As a consequence, it is understood, Britain and its Western allies have been able to gather and share the identities of the majority of GRU officers who have ever travelled abroad on covert operations.
The mass expulsion of spies from Russian embassies in Europe and the US has also played a huge role in disrupting Russia’s intelligence network abroad.
Sources have suggested the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service – the Russian equivalent of MI6 – is desperately trying to rebuild its capabilities in the West. After the Salisbury attack, Sergei Naryshkin, the director of the SVR, claimed the poisoning was a “grotesque provocation rudely staged by the British and US intelligence agencies”.
The UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats and the US expelled 60 more in retaliation for poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March last year. Dawn Sturgess, a Salisbury woman, died after coming into contact with the nerve agent in a discarded perfume bottle, and Charlie Rowley, her boyfriend, and Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, a Wiltshire police officer, were left with serious health problems. British officials are now confident that the 23 diplomats were almost entirely GRU and SVR agents and that the process unpicked the Kremlin’s spying operations in the UK.
In September, Theresa May vowed to “dismantle” the GRU’s networks when she announced the organisation was behind the Salisbury attack.
Intelligence officials do not wish to appear arrogant but appear confident they have helped to carry out the Prime Minister’s promise for retribution. Counter-terror police working with the intelligence services were able to piece together the plot to murder Colonel Skripal, a former GRU officer who had sold secrets to MI6, using CCTV, including footage from the streets close to the Col Skripal’s home in Salisbury, and from passenger flight manifests and immigration data at the time of the attempted hit. The GRU agents travelled under the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov but were later humiliatingly unmasked as Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, two senior GRU officers, both of whom had been in receipt of the Hero of the Russian Federation medal, the country’s highest honour, bestowed by Mr Putin. It is thought they were given the awards for their actions in Ukraine in 2014.
A further 40 suspected agents were identified by leaked passport data, which listed their addresses as Khoroshevskoye Shosse 76 B, the Moscow headquarters of the GRU.
Further extensive information on the GRU’s operations was gathered by the British and partner intelligence agencies after the Kremlin ordered a second team to The Netherlands to hack into a separate inquiry conducted by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons into the use of Novichok. The GRU unit was arrested by Dutch intelligence agents, identifying 300 suspected agents and exposing the GRU’s inner workings.
Alexei Morenets, 41, one of the agents, had his Lada car registered to a GRU base in Moscow, allowing other cars registered there to be traced. The government source said: “It’s fair to say it’s been a bad year for the GRU.”
The intelligence service failed to kill Skripal while unmasking the identities of hundreds of its own agents. It allowed British and allied intelligence services to link the GRU to a series of illegal spying operations including attempts to hack into investigations into Russian doping in sport and interference in the US election.
Vladimir Putin with Sergei Naryshkin, director of the SVR
Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, alias Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga of the GRU, are suspects in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, left, in Salisbury last March