While MI5 kept its focus on terrorism, Russian intelligence spotted an opening
Published 23/01/2016 | 02:30
The public inquiry into the fate of Alexander Litvinenko lifted the veil on a particularly sordid Russian intelligence operation. We know that his murder was "directed" by the FSB and "probably approved" by Vladimir Putin himself. But how great is the espionage threat from Russia?
The Cold War is supposedly over, but Litvinenko's death provides vivid evidence of how the FSB and the SVR - the twin successors of the old KGB - continue to treat some countries such as Britain as priority targets.
Litvinenko's murder suggests that intelligence services are fighting an uphill battle against their Russian adversaries. The one crumb of good news, perversely, may be the fact that the FSB poisoned their target with polonium. Rather than stage a completely brazen murder, they did, at least, go to some trouble to cover their tracks and keep the deadly poison undetectable.
The fact that the supposedly undetectable polonium was detected - and the mystery unravelled - was never part of the plan. From the Kremlin's standpoint, the operation might have got its man, but the price in terms of public exposure was high.
Yet the very fact that Russian intelligence felt confident enough to poison a Briton in London is still pretty brazen. Russia will have noted that counterespionage - or thwarting the plans of hostile intelligence agencies - has been steadily downgraded within Britain's own security services.
Back in 1909, MI5 was created as a counterespionage agency: its first task was to hunt down German spies in Britain. During the Cold War, tracking the KGB was its consuming focus.
Since then, everything has changed. Andrew Parker, the director of MI5, disclosed last year that counterterrorism absorbs two-thirds of his service's resources. Until 1984, MI5 did not even possess a dedicated counterterrorism department; today most of the organisation is focused on preventing future 7/7 attacks.
The figures disclosed in Prof Christopher Andrew's authorised history of MI5 demonstrate a vital change in priorities. In 1974, counterespionage accounted for 52pc of the service's resources; counterterrorism by contrast was a mere 7.5pc - even at the height of the IRA's campaign.
This week we can infer that tracking spies is down to less than a third of MI5's effort. Prof Andrew writes that after the Cold War "for the first time in its history the Service became primarily a counterterrorist agency".
The question must then arise: did MI5's turn away from counterespionage create an opening for Russian intelligence to exploit?
In the light of the terrorist threat since September 11, this change in focus was understandable - perhaps inevitable. But Litvinenko's fate shows that it came with great risks.
Since his murder in 2006, there are signs that British intelligence is quietly redressing the balance. When Litvinenko was poisoned, Russia's embassy in London had 67 diplomats. Since then, the number has fallen by a third to 46. The aim appears to be to reduce the ranks of Russian intelligence officers serving in London under diplomatic cover.
Four Russian diplomats were expelled in 2007, but more subtle methods have also been used to push the number of Kremlin envoys downwards.
One senior official said that various steps had been taken to "make the UK a difficult operating environment for Russian intelligence".
He gave no details, but an incident five months ago might be instructive.
Last August, the Russian embassy publicly complained that four of its diplomats had been compelled to leave because their visas had not been renewed.
There is an established tactic whereby a country denies visas to known intelligence officers from a hostile service, forcing the adversary to appoint inexperienced successors. One counterespionage officer told Prof Andrew that the new replacements are "more likely to make mistakes" and tend to be "reluctant to risk being caught and expelled".
So the message from the Litvinenko affair is clear: despite the threat of terrorism, MI5 should never forget that hunting foreign spies is the service's first calling. (© Daily Telegraph london)