Russia Reportedly Tells Britain Nine Diplomats to be Expelled
MOSCOW (AP) _ In one of the biggest East-West espionage cases since the Cold War ended, Russian intelligence officials reportedly gave Britain a list Tuesday of nine diplomats to be expelled for being ``career spies.″
The British government warned it was prepared to strike back, and suggested that campaign-year gamesmanship was behind the Russian action.
A day after the spy flap surfaced with the announcement a Russian had been arrested while giving secret information to British agents, there was a flurry of diplomatic activity but still no firm word on expulsions.
Russia’s counter-intelligence service presented the British ambassador, Sir Andrew Wood, with a detailed explanation of the nine British diplomats’ alleged espionage contacts, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
``The talk is about career spies, not about diplomats,″ said Alexander Zdanovich, spokesman for Russia’s Federal Security Service, adding the agency had ``irrefutable proof″ of the spying.
British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said allegations that the nine were involved in ``improper activities″ _ a diplomatic term for spying _ were totally unjustified, and threatened ``a significant response″ if the expulsions took place.
Meanwhile, a rift appeared to be developing between the Foreign Ministry, which tried to downplay the incident, and the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Grigory Karasin said ``unnecessarily emotional and hasty decisions″ should be avoided at all costs.
Karasin would not confirm that nine diplomats were involved, and it was not clear if Moscow might pull back from its promise of several expulsions.
But Zdanovich insisted the expulsions must not be linked to bilateral ties.
``There are no grounds to link specific actions of counter-intelligence or intelligence services with the general contents and the development of bilateral relations,″ he said.
The British, American and German ambassadors huddled Tuesday in Britain’s embassy, presumably focusing on a Western response to Moscow’s allegations. Later, Wood met with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov.
First word of the case came Monday when the Federal Security Service said its agents had arrested a government employee who had confessed to passing secret information of ``a political, defense and strategic nature″ to British agents.
The agency said the man had been formally charged with treason ``in the form of espionage,″ which is punishable by death.
The man confessed to being recruited by the British in the mid-1990s and revealed his contacts, the agency said. Russian media reports said Tuesday the man was young and had been arrested in April.
The agency’s statement that nine British ``intelligence agents″ who work for the embassy would be expelled prompted an angry response from Britain and made front-page news Tuesday in newspapers in both countries.
``This is an unprecedented scandal in the new post-Soviet history of Russia,″ said the daily Segodnya.
``Britain and Russia Clash Over Spies,″ London’s Daily Telegraph chimed in.
Some observers suggested that Moscow’s action was a ploy by President Boris Yeltsin’s campaign to seek support from hard-line voters in the June 16 presidential election.
Former top Soviet spymaster Nikolai Leonov told Russia’s NTV network that critics often accuse Yeltsin’s government of being pro-West and unable to defend the country’s national interests.
``There’s a desire to show that we are independent, that we can act tough in such cases and protect our national security interests even by such methods,″ said Leonov, a retired KGB official.
Western analysts said the case is the biggest of its kind since the Soviet collapse.
The last similar case was in 1989, when 11 British journalists and foreign service employees were kicked out of Moscow in retaliation for a similar expulsion of Russians from Britain.
In February, British businessman Nigel Shakespeare was expelled on suspicion of spying.