Russia accused Britain on Monday of running a James Bond-style spying operation in Moscow using a receiver hidden in a fake rock to gather secret information.
Russia-based human rights groups said the spy scandal may in fact be targeting them, following Russia’s new curbs on the actions of non-governmental organizations.
Russia’s FSB state security service confirmed a state TV report implicating four British embassy employees in an operation that entailed using a dummy rock equipped with a receiver to gather secret information.
“The most important thing is that we caught them red-handed while they were in contact with their agents (and established) that they were financing some non-governmental organizations,” FSB chief spokesman Serge said.
“What the aim was of this financing has to be carefully worked out,” he added.
The link made to NGOs was in line with new official curbs on the activities of non-governmental pressure groups such as human rights groups and charities.
President Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB spy, has said the West is using NGOs as political instruments — meaning they are being used to foment unrest of the sort that brought down the pro-Moscow establishment in Ukraine in December 2004.
Issues on the horizon
Human rights groups sensed danger ahead.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group which was linked to the British embassy in the Rossiya TV program, said the affair was meant to put pressure on rights activists.
“I consider that this is a campaign against non-governmental organizations in Russia which is being organized from above and includes the television channels,” Alexeyeva told Reuters. “This is a complete deja vu from the Soviet Union.”
In London, the Foreign Office said, “We are concerned and surprised at these allegations. We reject any allegation of improper conduct in our dealing with Russian NGOs.
“It is well known that the U.K. government has financially supported projects implemented by Russian NGOs in the field of human rights and civil society.
“All our assistance is given openly and aims to support the development of a healthy civil society in Russia.”
Four diplomats implicated
Four British diplomats were named as having taken part in the operation which the TV program, shown on Sunday night, said had taken place in autumn last year. The British embassy declined comment on their present whereabouts.
The FSB said a Russian national who had been working for the British had been arrested and sophisticated electronic equipment had been seized.
The program said the embassy officials had downloaded classified data from a transmitter in the rock using handheld computers.
In footage that smacked of the Cold War era, the program showed the imitation rock lying in snow by a roadside. A man, identified as one of the four diplomats, walked up to it, picked it up with some effort and made off with it.
Britain and Russia frequently spied on each other during the Cold War, triggering many major international scandals.
These occur less frequently now, though both sides acknowledge they still conduct espionage operations on each other’s soil.
There was no immediate explanation as to why Moscow had chosen now to risk upsetting relations with Britain just as Russia starts its presidency of the Group of Eight industrialized nations.
But ties between the two powers have cooled after differences over Iraq. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week listed the West European powers with whom Russia had particularly warm relations, but conspicuously failed to mention Britain.