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.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters
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.

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.

“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.)

“The history of relations between Britain and the USSR were full of intelligence problems and spats,” says Alex Pravda, at the Chatham House think tank. “Recently though ... Britain has become seen in Moscow as a center for potential Russian opposition, and the presence of Berezovsky and Zakayev in London are seen as evidence that Britain is willing to give them safe haven.”

Aside from dissidents, the Russian community is present at almost every level of London society. Tens of thousands of Russians have made Britain their home since the first waves of bankers, students, refugees, and others began arriving in the early 1990s. In some years, the British authorities issued more than 100,000 visas.

The sound of Russian is commonplace on the upmarket shopping thoroughfare of King’s Road in Chelsea. At least four Russian-language newspapers have sprouted, along with grocery stores with Russian foods, Russian-language schools, and Russian legal firms.

Olga Yartseva, a student at University College London who moved here at age 11 when her father came here to work, tells of a trend: wealthy Moscow parents sending their children here for school. The children then return to Russia to work in the family business.

Admitting to a happy ambivalence about her own identity – “I spend half of my life in Moscow and the other half in London” – she admires how Russian oligarchs have connected with their adopted homeland. “What I like ... is the way that they contribute to British society, through charity but also by investing. They don’t isolate themselves. They integrate.”

The best-known oligarch is Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, a self-made billionaire listed by Forbes as the 50th richest man in the world. He is joined by Oleg Deripaska, a banking and aluminum tycoon (the world’s 57th richest man), and Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB spy in London in the 1980s. He owns London’s Evening Standard newspaper and The Independent.

Economic interests growing

In some ways, a two-way flow of money between Britain and Russia is shifting relations to a post-Soviet level based more on economic interests. British firms accounted for $20.5 billion of the $265.8 billion Russia has attracted from abroad since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

But among those released by Russia in return for the 10 agents arrested in the United States was Igor Sutyagin, a scientist convicted six years ago of passing atomic secrets to US intelligence. After being flown to London, via Vienna, he is expected to start a new life in Britain.

With yet another Kremlin enemy living in London, Russia’s secret oversight is unlikely to fade anytime soon.


of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.