July 19, 2007

Britain Sounds Air Raid Warning

// London Newspapers Track Russian Bombers

Great Britain has opened a new front in the battle against Russia. Yesterday the British press reported that London is swarming with Russian agents who tried to kill Boris Berezovsky, and that Russian bombers have appeared over the country's borders. In essence, London has begun an information war aimed at convincing the European Union to voice more decisive support for the UK in its conflict with Russia.
Yesterday the British press was full of reports about new threats from Russia. The headlines of all the major papers were devoted to two topics: the appearance of Russian TU-95MC strategic bombers close to the airspace of the United Kingdom, and the revelation of an assassination attempt against Boris Berezovsky. The press reported that on Tuesday, two RAF Tornado fighter jets were scrambled to intercept Russian bombers that were approaching UK airspace near Scotland. "Russian military aircraft based near the northern port city of Murmansk fly patrols off the Norwegian coast regularly, but the RAF said that it was highly unusual for them to stray as far south as Scotland," said The Times, adding that "the spirit of the Cold War [has] returned to the North Atlantic once again."

Quoting anonymous sources in the RAF, the British press reported that the Russian TU-95 jets, known in the West as "Bears," were first shadowed by two F16s from the Norwegian Air Force. The pilots immediately informed their British colleagues about the approaching bombers, but the Russian jets turned back before reaching British airspace.

This incident was immediately linked with the confrontation between London and Moscow over Russia's refusal to hand Andrei Lugovoi over to the British legal authorities. "While the Kremlin hesitated before responding to Britain’s expulsion of four diplomats, the Russian military engaged in some old-fashioned sabre-rattling," concluded The Times.

The second piece of sensational news to explode in the British press concerned the Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, who lives in London. According to The Times and The Sun, the vigilance of Scotland Yard has foiled an assassination attempt on the fallen oligarch. Quoting anonymous sources in the British security services, the newspapers reported that a killer of Russian origin, whose name was not given, had planned to settle scores with Mr. Berezovsky in the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane, in the center of the British capital. According to reports, however, MI5 and MI6 intelligence agents, together with operatives from the antiterrorism division of the London police, had mounted round-the-clock surveillance of the hunter and his prey. The television news channels ITV and SkyNews went on to report the further details of the case: in order not to attract attention, the hired killer went into the Hilton accompanied by a child, but he was immediately seized by police, his British visa was cancelled, and he was quickly deported.

This incident apparently took place two weeks ago, but the intervening time period has done nothing to dampen Britain's indignation: "We cannot tolerate a situation where Russian hit squads can roam the streets of London trying to take out enemies of their regime," a source in the British government who deals with security issues was reported as saying.

These revelations in the British press also touched a nerve with Russian officials. "The reports that Russian bombers were heading in the direction of British airspace do not accord with reality. Such flights have been carried out and are carried out according to a plan of preparing crews for long flights," said Russian Air Force spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky. "We planned flights in international airspace in advance and informed interested countries about them." The Russian Foreign Ministry was even more blunt in its remarks: "Everyone is free to fly wherever they like, as long as they don't violate [any laws]. So there isn't any story here," Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Kritsov told Kommersant. "They sounded the alert because there is a campaign afoot to portray Russians as bad."

In a comment to the BBC concerning the Berezovsky affair, Yury Fedotov, the Russian ambassador in London, said that "it is quite strange information, and I have nothing that could confirm it. But it does not surprise me, because Berezovsky uses any opportunity, including those he invents himself, to attract attention to himself."

Interestingly, the Russian authorities did not react to any official accusations, choosing instead to respond to the media reports at a time when the British government itself was maintaining its composure. A spokesman from the UK Ministry of Defense told Kommersant that the TU-95 bombers were noticed over the North Sea but that they had not violated British airspace and thus were not intercepted. "We do not in any way connect this incident with the expulsion of the Russian diplomats and consider all attempts to connect these events to be pure speculation," the ministry's press service told Kommersant. The ministry also told Kommersant that it is expressing the position of the British government, meaning that the Foreign Office does not intend to react to the incident. "We agree that the event bears no relation to the expulsion of the Russian diplomats or to our demand to extradite Mr. Lugovoi," confirmed a spokesman for the British Foreign Office.

This diplomatic stance by the British authorities is curious, given that the leaks to the press came from MI6 and the RAF, both government entities. In any case, these leaks achieved at least one goal: they helped consolidate British public opinion, which was far from being unanimously in favor of the actions of the Foreign Office in the row over the extradition of Mr. Lugovoi. For example, several British media outlets have mentioned that London's reputation when it comes to extradition is far from spotless: in 2000, the British Home Office refused to hand over the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to Spain after he was arrested in London. After this double blow landed by the British press yesterday, however, no doubts are expected regarding the correctness of the course taken by the British government.

By all accounts, the frightening story of Boris Berezovsky and the Russian bombers is also being deployed to consolidate European popular opinion by demonstrating that Britain's anti-Moscow rhetoric is a necessary political tack, not a caprice of the new government or of David Miliband, the youthful new head of the UK Foreign Office. This is particularly crucial in the wake of the appeal to the EU on Tuesday by Russian deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko. As of yesterday, only the French Foreign Ministry had expressed reserved support for Great Britain's position.

The expansion of the conflict means that the reason for London's displeasure with Moscow is not simply the Lugovoi affair. In his recent address to Parliament, in which he criticized Russia for not handing over Andrei Lugovoi, David Miliband brought up several previous discords between the two countries: the persecution of the British Council in Russia and the harassment of British Ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton by activists of the Nashi youth movement. In other words, the British political elite has an axe to grind with Russia in general, and the new cabinet, which unlike Tony Blair's government has no previous obligations to Moscow, is prepared to speak up.

London's aggravated response testifies to the beginning of a new stage in Russian foreign policy. Previously, the Kremlin's main opponents in Europe were some of the EU's newest members, Estonia and Poland. Now, however, influential London is becoming Moscow's main antagonist. With its calls to its colleagues in the European Union to take a harsher line in relation to Russia, London promises to be quite a dangerous adversary.

How Boris Berezovsky Was Saved

Boris Berezovsky told Kommersant that approximately three months ago, "anti-Putin" members of one of the Russian special services approached him in London. According to Mr. Berezovsky, they were still in active government service when he met them. "They said that the Kremlin had decided to have me liquidated. A businessman acquaintance of mine was supposed to kill me during a meeting," said Mr. Berezovsky, who lives in self-imposed political exile in London. "After the murder, instead of escaping and going into hiding, he was supposed to give himself up to the police and say that the crime was committed because of a business dispute between us." Under English law, believes Mr. Berezovsky, the murderer "would have been given 20 years, served half, and then, after being released for good behavior, would have become a Hero of Russia." His new acquaintances told Mr. Berezovsky that, in addition to receiving the medal, "the murderer would be paid so much that his family would not need for anything" while their provider was serving his sentence. After hearing out his visitors from Moscow, Mr. Berezovsky contacted his lawyers, who filed a report with the police. Approximately three weeks ago, an investigator from Scotland Yard came to Mr. Berezovsky's office with the news that an attempt on his life really was being planned and that he should leave the country "until the crisis is resolved." Mr. Berezovsky left London and went into hiding in a country that he refused to name.

He is certain that the same forces that killed Alexander Litvinenko are behind the attempt on his life: "Putin even signed a decree last year allowing the special services to carry out operations abroad," he said. When asked by Kommersant why the English police had released the purported assassin by sending him out of the country, Mr. Berezovsky replied, "and why would this person, if he's not guilty, keep his mouth shut and not cry that an innocent man was being expelled [from the country]? This confirms again that he was a criminal."

Vladislav Trifonov

Vladimir Solovyov and Mikhail Zygar
All the Article in Russian as of July 19, 2007

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