Ex-MI6 chief's warning over Russia's 'aggressive' spying in Europe

Ex-MI6 chief Sir John Sawers warns that Western powers only know about 10% of Russia’s ‘aggressive intelligence activities’ in Europe as Czechia blames spies accused of Salisbury Novichok attack for deadly 2014 explosion

  • Sir John Sawers was the head of overseas UK spy agency MI6 from 2009 to 2014 
  • Russian spies accused of orchestrating Salisbury implicated in Czech explosion
  • Unmasking prompted tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions in Prague and Moscow 

Western intelligence is only aware of around 10 per cent of Russia’s ‘aggressive’ activities in Europe, a former head of MI6 warned today as the Kremlin was implicated in yet more criminality.

Sir John Sawers spoke as the Russian agents accused of orchestrating the deadly Salisbury nerve agent attack were implicated in a deadly explosion in Czechia in 2014.

The UK has backed Prague after it expelled senior diplomatic figures representing Vladimir Putin’s regime, prompting a tit-for-tat reply, over the ammunition depot blast, which left two people dead.

Sir John, who ran the Secret Intelligence Service from 2009 to 2014, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It shouldn’t be a surprise that Russian intelligence are very active across Europe, and I think the Czechs have pieced this together really rather well.

‘They were supplying arms to the Ukrainian army in 2014 and the Russians had an interest in preventing that taking place, so the Russian military intelligence blowing up the ammunition stores in the Czech Republic and then poisoning the Bulgarian intermediary a year later…

‘It all has the hallmarks of a Russian intelligence operation, and I think the Czechs have got these two people who tried to assassinate Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, I think they’ve got them bang to rights.’

He added: ‘We see the extent of Russian aggressive intelligence activities across Europe, we probably only know 10 per cent of what they’re doing. There will be a great deal that intelligence services do that we’re simply not aware of.’

Sir John Sawers spoke as the Russian agents accused of orchestrating the deadly Salisbury nerve agent attack were implicated in a deadly explosion in Czechia in 2014.

The UK has backed Prague after it expelled senior diplomatic figures representing Vladimir Putin’s regime, prompting a tit-for-tat reply, over the ammunition depot blast, which left two people dead.

Czech police said they were searching for men carrying various passports, including Russian documents in the names of Alexander Petrov (right)  and Ruslan Boshirov (left). The aliases match those used by the pair – real names Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga – who Britain believes poisoned turncoat Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in 2018.

Foreign spies face prosecution and deportation under new laws 

Foreign spies operating in Britain will be prosecuted and deported under new laws to protect the country from hostile states.

The Queen’s Speech on May 11 will reportedly be used by the Prime Minister to announce a bill outlining measures to protect Britain from the likes of Russia and China.

It will mandate that all individuals working on behalf of foreign governments in the country will have to register their presence – not doing so will become a criminal offence, The Times reported.

Intelligence agencies have warned that under current laws, foreign spies are immune from the law unless they are caught acquiring official secrets.

It is believed that Britain will aim to have a similar register to the Foreign Agents Registration Act in the US, which extends to anyone representing the interests of a foreign state.

The Official Secrets Act, which is intended to protect the United Kingdom from espionage, will be updated so it can be used against anyone attempting to undermine Britain’s interest from abroad.

With some parts written in 1911, ministers hope to adjust the legislation so it can be used against those carrying out foreign cyberattacks.

They are also considering whether to raise the maximum sentence – which is currently two years for most offences – for any breaches of the act. 

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last night condemned ‘malign’ activities by the Kremlin’s intelligence services after Czech police said they were searching for men carrying various passports, including Russian documents in the names of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.

The aliases match those used by the pair – real names Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga – who Britain believes poisoned turncoat Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in 2018.

Czech police suspect the men passing themselves off as Petrov and Boshirov were members of a Russian spy cell involved in an explosion in an ammunition warehouse in October 2014, which killed two contractors working there.

Eighteen Russian diplomats have been ordered to leave the country in an attempt to hobble its intelligence capabilities.

Mr Raab said: ‘The UK stands in full support of our Czech allies, who have exposed the lengths that the Russian intelligence services will go to in their attempts to conduct dangerous and malign operations in Europe.

‘This shows a pattern of behaviour by Moscow, following the Novichok attack in Salisbury. My sympathies are with the families of the victims in Vrbetice.

‘We are as determined and committed as ever to bring those responsible for the attack in Salisbury to justice, and commend the actions of the Czech authorities to do the same. Russia must desist from these actions, which violate the most basic international norms.’

Czech authorities said the men are suspected of operating in the country between October 11, when they arrived in Prague, and October 16, the day of the blast.

They say the men travelled from Prague to the eastern village where the blast took place – destroying a warehouse containing 58 tonnes of ammunition – and then left the country shortly afterwards. 

Another explosion, which took place in December 2014, then destroyed another warehouse at the same site containing 98 tonnes of explosives – but Czech authorities have not said who they think is responsible for that.  

Investigative website Bellingcat, which revealed the true identities of both Petrov and Borishov, has previously reported that Petrov – or Mishkin – was in Prague earlier in 2014.

Mishkin was in Prague for eight days from January 26 until February 2 alongside a man named Denis Sergeev – who is also a suspect in the Salisbury poisoning.

Sergeev, who used the alias Sergey Fedotov, is thought to have provided Mishkin and Chepiga with support during the Salisbury mission – including calling them after the attack to tell them to head back to Russia.

It is not known why Mishkin or Sergeev were in Prague just months ahead of the warehouse bombings. 

Col. Mgr. Jaroslav Ibehej of the NCOZ issued the notice for the two men who were first using Russian passports with the names Alexander Petrov, born on July 13, 1979 and Ruslan Boshirov, born April 12, 1978. 

The pair then switched to one Moldovan passport in the name of Nicolai Popa, born July 18, 1979 and a Tajikistan passport in the name of Ruslan Tabarov, born October 23, 1975. 

According to Czech police they were first in Prague, and later in the Morovian-Silesian region and then finally in the Zlin region.  

The investigation relates to a decision by the Czech government to expel 18 Russian diplomats identified by local intelligence as secret agents of the Russian SVR and GRU services that are suspected of involvement in a 2014 explosion.

Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek said: ‘Eighteen employees of the Russian embassy must leave our republic within 48 hours. 

Prime Minister Andrej Babis said Czech authorities had ‘clear evidence’ linking GRU officers to an explosion in an ammunition warehouse in 2014 which left two people dead.

‘We have good reason to suspect the involvement of GRU officers from unit 29155 in the explosion at the ammunition warehouse in Vrbetice’ in the east of the country, Babis said.

He added he had received the information on Friday, without explaining why it had taken so long.

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