Britain's intelligence chief has sent a message to disgruntled elites
In 1985, a man carrying a Safeway bag waited on Moscow’s Kutuzovsky Prospekt. Another man soon passed, holding a Harrods carrier bag and eating a Mars bar. The two exchanged glances. Shortly afterwards, the former was bundled into the boot of a car by his British spy handlers and sped across the Finnish border as the KGB raced to locate him.
The valuable individual was Oleg Gordievsky — KGB colonel, former head of Russian intelligence in London and longtime double agent. Unlike the majority of agents, Gordievsky had always stressed that his duplicity stemmed from moral rather than financial motives, saying, “I want to work for the West out of ideological conviction, not for gain.”
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Yesterday, nearly forty years after Gordievsky’s defection, the Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service Sir Richard Moore made an unprecedented intervention, openly calling for Russians “appalled” by Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine to become agents for UK intelligence. Once again, British spies are hoping to find sources motivated by ideological concerns, in this case those who are, in Moore’s words, “watching in horror as their soldiers ravage a kindred country”.
It is an auspicious moment for the spy boss to make such an appeal. The Russian military, political and business elites who possess information valuable to UK intelligence are likely still rattled by drone attacks on the capital, not to mention the 24th June uprising in which it seemed Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin would march on Moscow with a band of criminals and guns for hire.
Putin has consistently striven to protect the metropolitan elites from the consequences of his invasion. He built a bomb shelter in a luxury hospital to reassure them in the wake of the Moscow drone attacks, and has recruited disproportionately in poorer provincial areas to bolster the war effort.
However, there were signs emerging even before Prigozhin launched his armed assault that Russia’s elites were perturbed by Putin’s war. In April this year, a leaked telephone conversation revealed music producer Iosif Prigozhin and energy billionaire Farkhad Akhmedov criticising Putin and his associates, complaining that the government “stole the country’s future”.
In May 2022, diplomat Boris Bondarev publicly resigned his position as counsellor at Russia’s UN Office in Geneva in protest over the invasion, claiming that up to 30 other diplomats had also resigned from the Foreign Ministry because of similar motivations.
The Kremlin is fully aware of the risk posed by disgruntled citizens. The British Ministry of Defence reported in March that, since the start of the war, Russia’s security services had been tightening the restrictions on foreign travel for those working in “sensitive areas” and confiscating civil servants’ passports, lest “increasingly disaffected officials” flee or defect.
Sir Richard Moore is correct that disenchanted public servants, trapped in Russia, may be open to providing intelligence as their own way of fighting the system which invaded a neighbouring country and keeps them locked in their own. However, despite Moore’s words of reassurance to potential agents that “their secrets will always be safe with us”, the price of treachery is well-known in Russia. As late as 2008, Gordievsky was the target of a poisoning attempt. By his own estimation, he remains on a Kremlin assassination list.