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May 1996: British Diplomats Expelled from Moscow in Shock Spy Scandal

6th May 2012

I have never in these pages given you an (almost) full account of the expulsion from Moscow of a number of British diplomats back in May 1996 for - the Russians said - spying.

This was the first major spy row between Moscow and a 'Western' country following the end of the Cold War. And as today is the 16th anniversary of these momentous diplomatic negotiations, it's time to share with you some of the drama. This expands on my account given to the Cambridge Diplomatic Oral History project:

My time in Moscow ended in a dramatic way in mid-1996.  I was due to finish my posting as Counsellor at the end of May, to move on to start as HMA Sarajevo. By then I was well in with the Russian MFA.  They liked me there and we were doing good work together, not least in supporting the Contact Group’s work in former Yugoslavia – it was the high water mark of Western-Russian post-Cold War co-operation. 

The MFA were in one of the Stalin skyscraper buildings in Moscow, and I offered them a leaving party deal. They had to provide the highest possible floor in the MFA building with a great view somewhere - the 38th floor or so – for a party. They also provide the guests and I would provide the whisky. This was an easy deal to strike, subject to the Russians getting security clearance.

We were working away on this project happily when suddenly we got this strangled phone call on a Monday morning, demanding that Ambassador Andrew Wood come immediately to the MFA. A young desk officer who normally would have accompanied had just got back from seeing her fiancé in France and was feeling miserable, so I went with him.

As we drove from the Embassy building on the river opposite the Kremlin we noted a man in a leather jacket by the Embassy gates, videoing us. “This looks bad”, said the Ambassador. “Only a tourist!” I wittily replied. We arrived at the MFA. Another tough egg in leather jacket was videoing us.

We arrived in the office of the Deputy Foreign Minister. He got to the point: “We are expelling nine British diplomats for activities incompatible with their diplomatic status  They have to leave within two weeks”.  He (oddly) did not give us a list of the names but merely read them out and I noted them down – my own name (as it happened) was not on it.

“I assume this is some sort of stupid joke”, said the Ambassador angrily. “You must know perfectly well that to expel nine diplomats on this basis is absurd.” A vivid exchange ensued, but the Russian position was fixed. “It can not be excluded that the media will hear about this” said the Deputy Minister. This is diplomatic Russian for “Our new Xerox machine is glowing red hot as we run off the press releases!”

We went back to the Embassy and sent a flash telegram to London. Then called in the Nine and told them to their utter astonishment and in most cases dismay that they might well need to think about packing their suitcases within two weeks. The Russian side duly handed the media the story, which flashed round the world.    

It was a May Bank Holiday back in London. The system managed to crank up a letter from PM John Major to President Yeltsin remonstrating in strong terms about this unfriendly Russian move. This letter was passed by us to the Russian MFA for urgent onward transmission to the President.

Foreign Minister Primakov asked to meet the Ambassador to talk about this letter.  Andrew Wood wouldn’t let me go with him.  I said “I have my training needs – how can I learn to deal with this sort of crisis without training?”  He said “Forget your training. There are moments when Ambassadors deal with things privately”. And he was right.

The Ambassador reported back. Primakov had told him that the Prime Minister’s letter was putting Primakov in a difficult position: “If I show it to the President, I’ll have to show him various other documents, and he will be annoyed that Mr Major is wasting his time with this.  What do you want me to do?”

Andrew Wood grasped the point and agreed to get back to him on that one. Some spirited high-level exchanges between the Ambassador and No 10 followed. 

We retaliated by throwing out some Russians, and the Russians fudged on those of ours whom they had asked to leave; some of them were leaving anyway in the coming weeks and months as their tours finished. The Russian side ended up with an interest in downplaying the whole business, as their ‘external’ spies in London (SVR) did not want to be expelled just to help show how clever their internal intelligence (FBR) agencies had been. Old fashioned crass wedge-driving – it never fails.

I of course was leaving anyway, so a lot of people thought I had been among those kicked out.  It was a big Embassy, so there were always people coming and going or away on leave.  Journalists never found out the names of the people expelled.  The Embassy did a superb job in keeping the names private. I wonder how that would work nowadays in our social media blabbermouth world…

The fascinating thing about this story is the way the Negotiation was handled. It had many layers of Technique. The good relationship between Russia and Western countries following the end of the Cold War, now tipping into something very different. The exchanges between Major and Yeltsin, and Primakov and Andrew Wood. Divisions between the different Russian intelligence agencies, and indeed between ours. And so on.

But basically the Russians messed up here. They started 9-0 up and ended normal time at 4-4. Chastened by this experience they came up with a much better scheme under Putin: to name British diplomats accused of spying but not expel them and so invite retaliation, instead leaving them to twist in the bracing winds of Russian public humiliation.  Why had the Russians hit upon so many British supposed MI6 agents in one swoop? Explained (obliquely) here.

Happy days.

UPDATE    Comment from former colleague, who recalls the KGB playing a typical banal dirty trick:

Ah yes, I remember it well! I was foolish enough to offer a farewell party to two departing friends at the Embassy, and suffered the consequences. I returned home that afternoon from shopping with the family to find the lights of our apartment on and our voluminous fridge-freezer - full of British meat and other goodies from the Commissariat, to make up for the meagre Russian fayre - open, contents rapidly defrosting. Thank you, the Kingston Gas Board - aka KGB. Solution? Use it all that night in one humongous party for thirty people and toast in best Russian vodka those who had tried and failed to break our spirits at the Embassy! And how come they missed us both, my friend?

 

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