UK Expels Russian Envoy in Pushback Against Spying Surge

(Bloomberg) -- The UK expelled a top Russian envoy and imposed new restrictions on the country’s diplomats, in one of the most high-profile responses yet to what allied officials describe as a coordinated espionage campaign to weaken support for Ukraine.

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Home Secretary James Cleverly announced the actions in Parliament on Wednesday, saying the UK would deport Russia’s defense attaché on the grounds that he was an undeclared spy. He said would also limit the amount of time the country’s diplomats can spend in the UK, as well as strip some Russian-owned properties — including its defense section in London’s Highgate area and a 19th century country house south of the capital — of diplomatic protections.

The actions come in response to a suspected arson attack against Ukrainian-linked properties in East London and other espionage activities in Britain and Europe, Cleverly said.

“Over a number of years, we have witnessed Russia and its intelligence services engage in yet more open and more brazen attempts to undermine our security, harm our people and interfere in our democracies,” Cleverly told the House of Commons. “These activities bear all the hallmarks of a deliberate campaign by Russia designed to bring the war home across Europe and undermine our collective resolve to support Ukraine in its fight. It will not work.”

The Russian Embassy in London issued a statement saying the UK’s reasons for the new restrictions were “baseless and even ridiculous,” and pledged an appropriate response.

“It is deeply regrettable that at a time of acute international tension, when dialog is especially important to prevent further escalation, London continues to demonstrate belligerence and undermine the remaining ties,” the embassy said.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization last week sounded the alarm over what it said was a string of “malign activities” affecting countries including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the UK. Britain is one of Ukraine’s biggest providers of military support and last month Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sent long-range missiles to Ukraine as part of a £500 million ($625 million) package of new spending.

NATO said Russian agents had engaged in activity that “includes sabotage, acts of violence, cyber and electronic interference, disinformation campaigns and other hybrid operations” in the impacted countries. “These incidents are part of an intensifying campaign of activities which Russia continues to carry out across the Euro-Atlantic area, including on alliance territory and through proxies,” NATO said.

Last month, Germany arrested two men for plotting “possible sabotage actions” against military and industrial sites, including US installations. Earlier this year, a minister’s car in Estonia was vandalized while LTV reported that an attack on Latvia’s Museum of Occupation — where a window was broken and a Molotov cocktail was thrown in, has been traced back to a prison inmate who allegedly hired the perpetrators via Telegram.

The UK summoned the Russian ambassador on April 26 after several men where charged in connection with the arson case, in the first use of the National Security Act passed last year. It added new heat to long-simmering diplomatic tensions between the London and Moscow, where President Vladimir Putin is beginning a new six-year term. Foreign Secretary David Cameron said he was “deeply concerned” by the allegations.

The measures announced by the UK were in response to actions Russia had already taken, rather than any specific future threat, people familiar with the matter said. The UK and other nations felt they needed to send a message to Moscow that they know what its agents are doing and will take steps to prevent hostile actions on their territories, they added.

In Parliament on Wednesday, Cleverly declined to give further details about the arson incident because of the ongoing legal proceedings.

He also said the two Russian properties stripped of their diplomatic status were being used “for intelligence purposes.”

(Updates with Russian comment in fifth, sixth paragraphs.)

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