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Thursday 20 September 2018

Maeve Sheehan: Meanwhile, all is peaceful and above board at the Russian embassy in leafy Dublin 6

Russia's man in Ireland laughs off concerns over the size of a new development at the embassy, writes Maeve Sheehan

RUSSIAN: Ambassador Yury Filtov. Photo: David Conachy
RUSSIAN: Ambassador Yury Filtov. Photo: David Conachy
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

A war of words rages across the water over the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury. In equally leafy Dublin 6, however, it seems the Kremlin has been quietly doing its bit to help the Irish housing crisis.

The Russian Embassy's plan for a massive expansion of its compound on the leafy Dublin 6 suburb of Orwell Road has been interpreted as a grand surveillance outpost for Russian spies with America tech firms in their sights.

"This is ridiculous," says Russia's man in Ireland, ambassador Yury Filatov. "The idea is to bring all the diplomats inside the compound. Otherwise they are renting apartments in the city."

Dublin rents are indeed extortionate.

"There are a number of factors here. Not least of which an altruistic factor that we have to contribute positively to resolving the housing crisis," he says. He's joking - he likes to be 'humorous'.

"The main point is security. Well, Dublin is essentially a secure place but nevertheless it is always better, it is a safer environment, let's put it this way. And economically speaking, it just makes better sense." (That's not to suggest that embassy staff are at any risk in Ireland, his press adviser later clarifies).

The embassy is about to start building work within weeks on 24 apartments, consular offices, a new tennis court and other amenities, all powered by its own electricity sub-station.

Russia has diplomatic accreditation in Ireland for 17 staff and their partners, in addition to other staff such as drivers, security and housekeeping, who all come from Russia. The embassy has planning permission for 24 apartments. Britain has accreditation for 18, and the US for 22.

The ambassador says the expansion will provide more suitable meeting rooms than the one we're sitting in now - a brown-hued living room with a bay window filled with heavy furniture.

He says he held a press conference last week on the steps of the embassy building "for one reason". "They won't fit in here. This is the only reception area we have," he says.

The ambassador called the press conference to denounce "preposterous" accusations that Russia was involved in the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal (66) and his daughter Yulia (33).

Russia has been on the Irish security radar since long before then. Security sources told the Sunday Independent this weekend the embassy's expansion plans attracted attention, because the "footprint" is "massive". The authorities are being "vigilant", a source said.

Meanwhile, security firms have been monitoring Russian cyber-attacks, from organised criminals looking for blackmail demands and a more sinister type of Kremlin-sponsored attack, typically on utilities and state services, thought to be "trial runs" or "training grounds" for bigger attacks.

Ronan Murphy, chief executive of Smarttech, told a conference earlier this month how "organised criminals sat down in a boardroom in Russia and decided to target Ireland" in a cyber-attack.

Last week, Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin said he intends to seek an inquiry in the Dail.

The Russian ambassador denies all of it and says he would be happy to talk to Mr Howlin.

"I don't see anything coming out of the Irish Government on that subject. If there was any kind of specific concern from the Irish Government, I would have heard about that. But I didn't," says Mr Filatov.

"I am not aware of any police investigation, nothing of the sort. I haven't heard anything from the Irish authorities on this subject. It is simply sucked up from the air with a view to a political reason to hype up the current atmosphere, nothing else," he says.

"If there are questions and uncertainties, or whatever issues, we would be very much open to discuss that with the Irish authorities, no question about that. In fact, I would be very glad to talk to Brendan Howlin, or whoever in parliament may be interested in talking about these issues."

The ambassador is also unaware of a Trinity College study that identified €1bn channelled through the IFSC since 2007 by Russian companies, which, according to one of Ireland's former regulators, poses risks.

"I don't have anything to suggest there is something fishy going on in Ireland, in that respect," he says.

Later, he asks: "Would you really believe that there is someone in the Russian government thinking about a scheme to destroy Europe or everybody else, cutting links, wreaking havoc, influencing elections, etc, etc?"

Well, according to Irish security sources, Ireland has its suspicions.

But Mr Filatov says Russia is getting along quite nicely with Ireland right now, which may become a destination of choice for Russians frozen out of London.

"Well, if you are looking at what the British prime minister is suggesting, I would think twice about re-establishing myself in London. I don't know, but it seems like the environment is not really good. I would think of other options like Paris, Madrid, Dublin."

He says he is not aware of any Russian "migration" here. "But certainly, Ireland is an attractive place for Russian businessmen, for entrepreneurs," he says and "even under the unfortunate sanctions, Irishmen are engaged in promoting business in Russia and Russia in Ireland."

The oligarch Oleg Deripaska owns Aughinish Alumina plant in Limerick, the Russian state leasing agency has offices here, as does Kaspersky, the Russian cyber-security firm whose software US government systems have been ordered not to use.

The Irish Government has stopped short of directly blaming Russia for the poison attack on the Skripals. Neither Taoiseach Leo Varadkar nor Tanaiste Simon Coveney mentioned Russia in their condemnations of foreign attacks on British soil.

But that may change if the retaliatory action escalates beyond the expulsion of diplomats - 23 Russian diplomats from the UK, countered by 23 Britons from Russia yesterday.

Mr Filatov offers the same trenchant denials of involvement in the poison attack as other Russian diplomatic outposts all over the world: Russia was not involved in the poison attack; Britain has no proof; Russia wants to examine samples of the nerve toxin used in the attack; and says Britain is violating chemical weapons agreement by not doing so.

Britain's biological research centre, Porton Down - close to Salisbury - has identified Novichok, a nerve agent produced by the Russians in the 1990s, as the poison used on the Skripals.

"About the agent, contrary to the assertions by the prime minister, Russia has not been involved in the research or the same, of this agent, since the early 1990s. The whole chemical programme which we inherited from the Soviet Union has been stopped," he says, adding that stockpiles have been liquidated.

Mr Filatov points the finger at Porton Down. Russian scientists were "invited" to the US and the UK. "We do know that the same type and class of agents have been researched and produced at Porton Down and other laboratories in the US and other European countries. That's a fact," he says.

He also claims that "hypothetically" Russia could sue. "I would think down the road at some point in time, there is a possibility of making a legal action against someone who is making false claims," he says.

The ambassador remarked on the BBC last week that the "British territories" were "very dangerous for certain types of people". Who was he talking about?

"Well you have to have a certain sense of humour, otherwise you won't survive in the normal circumstances," he says.

"I've been talking about the pattern when people are moving to Great Britain, and they keep on, you know, we have a number of mysterious deaths there, you know?

"It's not only recent incidents. Litvinenko [Alexander, a former spy who died in the UK of polonium poisoning blamed on Russia], Berezovsky [Boris, a powerful Putin critic, found hanged in the bathroom of his UK home] Ah, well there are a number of murky, I would say, figures - who have died.

"But there are a number of conspiracy theories about them. Every time that happens, the suggestion of choice is of course, this is a bloody Russian regime killing people all over Great Britain. I would suggest otherwise. We do not have that kind of a policy."

Mr Filatov was posted here in November. A widower and career diplomat who loves Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde, he came from Moscow where he was former chief of state protocol in the Kremlin.

So Ireland's last spy scandal was before his time.

Luckily, our photographer, Dave Conachy, can fill him in.

He was part of a charity trip to Russia in 2010 unwittingly caught up in the scandal. It transpired that the passport details of one of his group - a volunteer with the charity - were used by a Russian spy in the US.

The Irish government later expelled a Russian diplomat - and gardai advised Dave Conachy to get a new passport.

As it happened, the spy was one of 11 deported by the US to Russia in a "spy swap" with Moscow, securing Sergei Skripal's release from prison.

Mr Filatov appears instantly concerned for our photographer.

"I am not familiar with this case. I hope it didn't do any harm to you personally," he says meaningfully, before adding. "Let us leave that kind of stuff to certain inter-governmental channels."

Sunday Independent

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