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US, Russia spy swap: Why London is a hotbed of spies

The US-Russia spy swap today in Vienna was aimed at bringing a quick close to spy tales that have transfixed the media. But London – a magnet for Russians – is likely to remain a hotbed of spies.

By Correspondent / July 9, 2010

A man reads The Times newspaper, featuring a front page article on accused Russian spy Anna Chapman and her British ex-husband Alex, at St James park in London on July 2.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters

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London

Alex Chapman had an inkling that something had changed toward the end of his marriage to the sultry young woman who was to become the glamorous public face of the Russian spy ring busted in several US cities.

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“She became very secretive, going for meetings of her own with ‘Russian friends,’ and I guess it might have been because she was in contact with the Russian government,” the trainee British psychiatrist recalled in an interview with the Daily Telegraph as the “London years” of Anna Chapman (formerly Anya Kushchenko) came under the spotlight.

The spy-ring affair that has transfixed both Americans and Britons should conclude with the quickly arranged prisoner swap July 9. The 10 people who were arrested and charged with spying in the United States landed at Domodedovo airport in Moscow today, even as four prisoners held for spying in Russia arrived in London.

But as her ex-husband’s account would have it, Ms. Chapman’s time in Britain from 2002 to 2007 was when she evolved from a naive but ambitious young student to a sophisticated jet-setter with a taste for intrigue and the high life.

Moscow on the Thames

Close watchers of British-Russian affairs were not surprised that London – dubbed variously as “Moscow on the Thames” or “Londongrad” because of its emergence as a magnet for Russians – quickly made an appearance in last month’s cold-war-style narrative. Suspicion has been a feature of relations since the 2006 death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian agent living in London who was poisoned with a rare radioactive isotope.

“You could argue that the spy ring in the US was a mere sideshow to the activities of the Russian security services in London,” says Jonathan Eyal, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.

Indeed, recent reports in Britain quoted unnamed intelligence experts suggesting that Russia spies here with the same intensity as during the Soviet-era KGB.
The most obvious explanation is London’s preeminent position as a base for rich oligarchs opposed to the power of Russia’s prime minister and former president, Vladimir Putin, and Russia’s secret service, now dubbed the FSB.

“If you look at the real opposition to the Kremlin,” says Dr. Eyal, “it is not inside Russia, where the opposition is completely impotent, but in London. It is here that you have the people who have the money to actually put together any movement in the future.”

Home to Putin enemies

Putin’s foremost enemy in London is Boris Berezovsky, who fled to Britain in 2001 after falling out with the Kremlin, which has repeatedly failed to have him extradited. Mr. Berezovsky has survived at least one assassination attempt in London, from where he announced in 2007 that he was plotting a new Russian revolution. Now the holder of a British passport, his allies in London include a former Chechen warlord, Ahmed Zakayev. (At one stage Berezovsky employed Mr. Litvinenko, who came here in 2000 after turning whistle-blower on the FSB, claiming he had been ordered to assassinate the oligarch.)

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