MI5 has been boosting security protection offered to alleged potential ‘Kremlin targets’ residing in the UK in the aftermath of the alleged poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in 2018, according to Sky News.
Russia has been accused by unidentified sources cited by the outlet of taking “quite an active interest” in several individuals in the UK that are ostensibly in the crosshairs.
Fending off a potential ‘Salisbury-style’ attack – something the Kremlin has denied any involvement in - requires extra measures involving the police and other agencies, two senior MI5 officers were said to have warned in an interview given to the publication.
EXCLUSIVE: MI5 has bolstered protection for people deemed at risk from Russia & is doing “everything we can” to prevent another Salisbury-style poisoning, but there are no "absolute guarantees", an intelligence officer tells @SkyNews #IntoTheGreyZone— Deborah Haynes (@haynesdeborah) March 3, 2021
One source, going by the name of ‘Tom’, is said to be responsible for the intelligence agency’s Russian counter-espionage desk. The second intelligence officer, going by the name of ‘Kate’, who allegedly investigates the activities of Russia's military intelligence agency, also weighed in on the issue.
Both identities were concealed, with actors voicing them on the final episode of Sky News' Into The Grey Zone podcast series, released on Thursday.
‘Evolving, Diversifying Threat'
The two sources claimed that the supposed Russia threat was "evolving and diversifying rather than getting worse".
“The reason we have a very developed understanding of the people at risk and the mitigations that I’ve described in place is because we know that the Russian state continues to take an interest in people here who we deem to be at risk,” said 'Tom' on the podcast, adding that it was believed Moscow was still trying to collect information about people.
“To what end? It’s not immediately apparent, but we’re not going to take any risks of finding out that the intelligence that they’ve been collecting has been towards some kind of physical attack,” said ‘Tom’.
According to the information supplied by the two officers, the UK intelligence agency is concerned that Moscow may be seeking to rebuild ‘a team of spies’ at its London embassy after some of their staff were expelled in the wake of the Salisbury attack.
23 Russian staff-members were sent away from the UK in the aftermath of accusations that Russia had attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former double-agent, and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on 4 March 2018 with a Novichok nerve agent contained in a perfume bottle. The Skripals survived, but a local woman, Dawn Sturgess, was allegedly exposed to the poison and died.
Sergei Skripal, who was caught by Russian counter-intelligence agents in 2004 and convicted in 2006 of espionage, had earlier been released in 2010 along with three other spies, in a swap for 10 Russians convicted of spying in the US.
Skripal had received a pardon from then-president Dmitry Medvedev.
While London believes that Moscow played a role in the incident, Moscow has refuted all allegations. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in May last year that the case was falling apart due to lack of any evidence incriminating Russia. Moscow has also protested that the UK failed to provide evidence or allow its embassy in London access to the Russian nationals.
Nevertheless, following the 2018 incident in Salisbury, almost 30 countries including the UK and US expelled a total of more than 150 Russian diplomats in retaliation, while the US and European Union slapped sanctions on Russia.
MI5 is reportedly working "really hard" to prevent a similar incident, particularly as the Russian agencies have ostensibly turned their focus on developing assets outside the embassy, using individuals posing as “journalists or academics or tourists”.
The number of people now requiring so-called enhanced protection runs into the double figures, it was claimed, with those likely at risk possibly including former agents such as Skripal, and other formerly well-connected Russians.
MI5, MI6 and GCHQ were suggested to have pooled resources into a joint ‘Russia mission’ to counter the perceived threat more effectively.
According to the interview, the agency’s ‘tailored’ advice to these individuals ranges from common security advice to implementing physical changes around their property and movements. It was added that direct police support was also provided.
When asked whether he believed the UK would be successful in warding off an incident reminiscent of the Salisbury one, ‘Tom’ said:
"We do absolutely everything we can to stop any events from taking place in the UK which are damaging the UK population or property, but there are no absolute guarantees. Have we been entirely successful? Time will tell."
‘Eye Off the Ball’
This comes as MI5 and Downing Street have been urged to respond more actively to the alleged threat from Russia after they were accused of taking their “eye off the ball” last year. At the time, a critical Russia report produced by the UK parliament’s intelligence and security committee, delayed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson until after the election, summed up the work of Britain’s spy agencies:
“We have not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference…This situation is in stark contrast to the US handling of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, where an intelligence community assessment was produced within two months of the vote, with an unclassified summary being made public.”
In a frenzied effort to ramp up pressure against Moscow, last year the UK sanctioned a group of Kremlin officials accused of being involved in the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The vlogger had previously undergone treatment in Germany, where he was taken over suspected poisoning with what German health experts claimed was a Novichok-like substance. The Kremlin has consistently dismissed the German findings and requested that the evidence be shared with it.
Russian doctors who initially treated Navalny when he had lost consciousness on a domestic flight in Siberia said that his condition was linked to a metabolism malfunction.