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Why Russia spies on Britain

Recent arrests may show that even as the invasion of Ukraine falters, Russia keeps sending its agents to the UK

Biser Dzhambazov, Katrin Ivanova and Orlin Roussev, the Bulgarian spies arrested in the UK last week. Photo: BBC/Linkedin/Biser

Three Bulgarian nationals have been arrested in the UK, accused of spying for Russia. They were held in February and have been remanded in custody ever since, charged with possessing identity documents for multiple European countries with “improper intention.”

Vladimir Putin is a former officer of the KGB and the FSB, its successor service, so it is perhaps no surprise that he makes enthusiastic use of covert operations. Over the last two decades, Russian espionage activity in the UK has been vigorous – and it can be split into two broad categories.

The first of these aims to control and even kill Russian dissidents and dissidents of countries Russia believes to be in its sphere of influence, and Russia certainly regards Bulgaria as within its sphere of influence.

In 1969, Georgi Markov defected from Soviet-controlled Bulgaria and fled to London, where he worked as a broadcaster and was heavily critical of the Bulgarian-Soviet regime. That was until one day in 1978 when he was walking across London Bridge and felt a sharp jab in his thigh. The Bulgarian Secret Service assassins had used an adapted umbrella to inject Markov with a micro-engineered pellet of the poison ricin. He died four days later.

An umbrella similar to the one the KGB used to kill Georgi Markov in London in 1978. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

In 2006, the former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium-210, and in 2018 the double agent Sergey Skripal was attacked with a nerve agent at his home in Salisbury. Unlike Litvinenko, Skripal and his visiting daughter, Julia, survived the attack. But another woman, Dawn Sturgess, died, after a friend found the poison bottle that had been discarded by the assassins. Sturgess thought it was perfume and sprayed it on her wrist, dying shortly after. This outrage led to the absurd denials of two GRU officers (Russian military intelligence) who were the presumed assassins. They admitted being in Salisbury, but said they were there to view the cathedral’s spire.

Putin’s policy is to silence dissent and erase enemies, whether at home or abroad. With that in mind, it is worth noting that two of the recently arrested Bulgarian suspects ran a community organisation for fellow Bulgarians and worked for commissions which helped Bulgarians living abroad to vote in elections back home. These roles will have allowed them to monitor and influence Bulgarian nationals in the UK.

Members of the emergency services at the scene of Sergei and Yulia Skripal’s poisoning in Salisbury, 2018. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty

The second aim of Russian espionage in the UK has been to cause chaos and undermine democracy. According to the Russian expert Dr Andrew Foxall, the Kremlin “believes that the west… seeks to undermine Russia’s stability and to deny Russia its rightful place in global affairs.” This prompts Russia to engage in subversion and the destabilisation of countries that it sees as adversaries. A special body within the GRU, Unit 29155, has been linked not only to the poisoning in Salisbury but to destabilisation attempts in Moldova in 2014, a failed coup in Montenegro in 2016 and possible destabilisation operations during the Catalonia independence referendum in 2017.

Bellingcat, the open source intelligence organisation, has also linked Unit 29155 to the explosion of a Czech ammunition depot in 2014 and the 2015 poisoning of Emilian Gebrev, a Bulgarian arms manufacturer. Both of these actions can be seen as an attempt to disrupt material support for Ukraine’s war effort.

Former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in the intensive care unit of University College Hospital in London in November 2006, in the days before his death from polonium-210 poisoning. Photo: Natasja Weitsz/Getty

As for the UK, it is perceived by the Kremlin as a proponent of the post-cold war international system, which it detests – Britain is therefore seen as an adversary. After the murder of Litvinenko and the attempt on Skripal’s life, the UK orchestrated an international response, which led to 130 suspected Russian spies being expelled from 28 countries. That only deepened Russia’s animosity.

Information warfare is central to Russian attempts to subvert and destabilise the UK. The Russian covert toolkit includes cyber-attacks, disinformation and hacking-and-leaking, which makes it all the more significant that one of the recently arrested Bulgarians spent three years working in a technical role in financial services. His LinkedIn profile states that he owned a business involved in signals intelligence, which involves the interception of communications.

Other Russian actions include “troll” campaigns, democratic interference, and the use of Putin-aligned oligarchs as tools for influence. All of these capabilities were deployed during the Brexit referendum, in an attempt to push the UK away from the EU and to foster internal divisions.

The irony is that, with the end of the cold war, Britain’s defence posture shifted almost completely away from the former Soviet opponent. After 9/11 and then the 2005 London bombings, resources within the UK intelligence services switched to counterterrorism.

Soviet weapons of assassination from the 1950s, including poison bullet projectors – camouflaged to look like harmless cigarette cases – for firing poison pellets, and miniature electric guns with three barrels for firing “dum-dum” bullets with poisoned coats. Photo: Bettmann/Getty

Russia’s covert organisations also changed their methods. Successive UK governments welcomed vast amounts of dubious Russian money into Britain, which allowed the Moscow elite to buy a degree of access across British society that the KGB could only have only dreamed of. They bought football clubs, newspapers, sank huge amounts of money into property and the shadier end of London’s fund management world, and in doing so their political influence grew.

In 2018, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson met privately with former KGB agent and oligarch Alexander Lebedev during a “weekend-long party” in Italy at Lebedev’s house. Johnson was there without his security. Former KGB officers allowed to get rich under Putin are not so “former” – Russian money had bought access to the very top of British political power.

In ancient China, Sun Tzu claimed a ruler has a duty to avoid conflict whenever possible, and, as espionage can help you understand your enemy’s intentions and therefore help in such avoidance, a sovereign who refuses to use spies is “devoid of humanity.” Putin is, however, using his spies to inflame conflict, not avoid it. In MI5’s annual threat update in November 2022, director general Ken McCallum, stated that: “We’ve seen Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine bringing war to Europe – raising national security questions many thought consigned to the history books.”

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine falters and as economic conditions within Russia continue to decline, we are likely to see an increase in covert activity. If Putin loses its grip on groups such as GRU Unit 29155, then UK, European and Nato security forces will have to become even more vigilant to counter these state-backed inciters of chaos.

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