MI5 has quietly stepped up the security protection offered to potential Kremlin targets living in the UK in the aftermath of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in 2018.
The security agency warned that the Russian state continues to take “quite an active interest” in a handful of individuals in the UK, prompting the need to take more active measures involving the police and other agencies.
The disclosure emerged in a rare interview given by two senior MI5 officers to Sky News, one of whom, known only as Tom, is responsible for running the domestic spy agency’s Russian counter-espionage desk.
“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, who was speaking off camera.
“And that’s not a passive interest. It’s quite an active interest. So we think that they are probably 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,” the senior officer added.
Both MI5 and Downing Street are under pressure to show they are taking the threat from Russia seriously. Last year it and the other UK spy agencies were accused of taking their “eye off the ball” when it came to the threat posed by the Kremlin in the highly critical Russia report produced by parliament’s intelligence and security committee.
Publication of the highly critical report was delayed by Boris Johnson until after the election, partly to avoid negative coverage about whether Kremlin disinformation had an impact on the Brexit vote in 2016. But since then No 10 has sought to ramp up the pressure again, last year sanctioning a group of Kremlin officials accused of being involved in the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The number of people now under enhanced protection runs into double figures and the agency will not list any names. But those deemed to be at risk are likely to include former agents such as Skripal and other formerly well connected Russians, as well as non-Russian nationals who are deemed serious irritants to the Kremlin.
Advice given is tailored to each individual and ranges from simple security advice to making physical changes around their property and movements – as well as providing direct police support, the agents added.
MI5 believes the Kremlin is eager to rebuild its spying capabilities in the UK – after their agents were expelled from the embassy following the Salisbury attack. But, the agents said, the Russian agencies are particularly interested in developing assets outside the embassy, using individuals posing as “journalists or academics or tourists”.
The MI5 officers also admitted that the British agency was at first stunned by the brazenness of the attack on the Skripals. “We probably hadn’t calculated just how determined and ruthless our adversary might be,” Tom said.
Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with the novichok nerve agent smuggled into the UK in a modified perfume bottle by agents from Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU. It was the agency where Sergei had once worked, although both survived the attack.
“This was intended potentially as a message to the UK government. So this was less about carrying out an attack than it was about sending a message both to the individual people in the GRU with whom he would have worked and to the UK government in general,” Tom added.
A third person, Dawn Sturgess, died in July 2018 after the discarded bottle was recovered by her partner thinking it would make a gift.