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UK to expel Russian defence attaché for spying

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The British government said on Wednesday that it was expelling Russia’s defence attaché for spying, removing diplomatic status from properties in the UK that it believes Moscow has used to gather intelligence, and limiting the length of visas granted to Russian diplomats.

Home secretary James Cleverly told parliament that the measures came in response to what he called Moscow’s “malign activity”. He said Britain was already “an extremely challenging operating environment for Russian intelligence services” but the measures would “serve to strengthen our resilience to the Russian threat”.

He called the Russian defence attaché “an undeclared military intelligence officer”.

Russia would give an “appropriate response” to the attaché’s expulsion, foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told RIA Novosti.

Britain has introduced several waves of sanctions on Russian companies and individuals since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Cleverly said the UK government would not falter in its support of Kyiv.

As part of the latest measures, the UK said it would remove diplomatic status from several Russian properties, including Seacox Heath in Hawkhurst, Sussex, and the Russian embassy’s trade and defence section in Highgate, north London.

“Since the illegal invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s attempts to undermine UK and European security have become increasingly brazen,” said foreign secretary Lord David Cameron. “These measures are an unequivocal message to the Russian state — their actions will not go unanswered.”

The UK is often at the forefront when it comes to combating Russian espionage in Europe.

In 2018, more than 20 countries joined the UK in expelling more than 100 Russian diplomats following the attempted assassination on British soil of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal. Of that total, London expelled 23 Russian spies who had been posing as diplomats.

Soon after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, European capitals ejected about 600 Russian diplomats, about 400 of whom were believed to be spies.

But European intelligence agencies have recently warned their governments that Russia has been rebuilding its European espionage network, often using proxies, and has been plotting and carrying out violent acts of sabotage across the continent as part of Moscow’s commitment to permanent conflict with the west.

Last week, Nato members said they were “deeply concerned” about recent attacks that they attributed to Russia and which had affected the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the UK.

In April, two British nationals were charged with conducting hostile activity in the UK to benefit Russian intelligence after a suspected arson attack on a London-based business linked to Ukraine.

In a separate legal case, six Bulgarian nationals have been charged with conspiring to commit espionage activities in the UK on behalf of Russia.

Cleverly said he expected “accusations of Russophobia, conspiracy theories and hysteria from the Russian government” following the latest UK measures. But, he said, the UK “will not fall for it, and will not be taken for fools by Putin’s bots, trolls and lackeys”.

“Our response will be resolute and firm,” Cleverly said. “Our message to Russia is clear. Stop this illegal war, withdraw your troops from Ukraine, cease this malign activity.”

John Foreman, the UK’s former defence attaché to Moscow, said the expulsion of the Russian defence attaché would “almost certainly” lead to a tit-for-tat move by Russia. While “not great or unexpected”, that could lead to “a total break in military-to-military relations” between two of the UN’s security council’s five permanent members, he said in a social media post.

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