Britain’s spy chief warned Vladimir Putin on Monday that London would no longer take the Kremlin at its word as it fights Russia’s “perpetual confrontation” with the West.
MI6 foreign intelligence agency head Alex Younger came out of the shadows to deliver only his second public address since assuming office four years ago – a period of flaring conflicts with Moscow.
MI6 has pointed the blame for the March poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury on two officers with Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, an attack Younger called a “flagrant hostile act”.
MI6 also accuses the GRU of hacking the OPCW chemical weapons watchdog in The Hague the following month, in a bid to figure out the course of its probe into the Skripal case.
Years of animosity
Skripal survived the attack and Moscow denied involvement in either incident.
“Mr Skripal came to the UK in an American-brokered [spy] exchange, having been pardoned by the presient of Russia – and to the extent that we assumed that had meaning,” said Younger.
“That is not an assumption we will make again.”
Skripal was included in a 2010 spy swap that followed the discovery in the US of a Russian sleeper cell whose members included former model Anna Chapman.
He was pardoned by former president Dmitry Medvedev in the middle of a four-year span during which Putin served as prime minister and Russia’s de facto leader.
Security analysts think Russia may have tried to kill him due to his alleged continued cooperation with European intelligence agencies.
Animosity between Moscow and London spies stretches back to the Cold War era.
Putin himself was a intelligence officer in the former East German city of Dresden in the years leading up to the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Yet it is rare for the head of the MI6 to directly confront Kremlin leaders.
Younger said he was focused on making sure Russia paid a price for any attacks on Britain high enough to ward them off in the future.
“Our intention is for the Russian state to conclude that, whatever benefits it thinks it is accruing from this activity, they are not worth the risk,” he told students in a talk at the University of St Andrews in Scotland
“We will do this in our own way, according to our laws, and our values,” he said.
“We will be successful nonetheless, and I urge Russia or any other state intent on subverting our way of life not to underestimate our determination and our capabilities.”
He only referred obliquely to the development of a “fourth generation of espionage” that worked to counter foes who took advantage of the “blurred lines” of cyber security.
He added that Britain needs to adjust to a new political reality in which “power, money and politics is going east”.
Younger also took pains to dismiss suggestions that Britain’s capabilities would weaken once it breaks off from the European Union in March.
“We will always work with our sister agencies to strengthen our indispensable security ties in Europe,” said Younger.