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Analysis & Opinion
09.12.10 No Cloak, No Dagger
By Tom Balmforth

An alleged Russian sleeper agent working officially as an aide to a UK member of Parliament was arrested a week ago, but is now being charged with infringing immigration law. The turn of events can only mean there is no hard evidence against her, but her deportation is still being sought, which suggests MI5 still suspects her guilt. A recently defected Russian spy in the States could have tipped off MI5, knowing that the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) has Ekaterina Zatuliveter registered as a potential sleeper, say secret services analysts. But even if this is true, his intelligence could be mistaken.

Six days after being arrested on suspicion of leaking British nuclear secrets to Russia, Zatuliveter, the parliamentary aide to Liberal Democrat member of Parliament Mike Hancock, is now being detained for infringing immigration law, the Russian Embassy in London said today.

Zatuliveter was arrested last Thursday at the behest of the MI5 British secret services because her research for backbencher Mike Lee who sits on the Defense Committee was “not conducive to national security,” and she was subsequently branded a “sleeper agent.”

“The official reply from the British side is that Zatuliveter was arrested for reasons linked with migration law,” the Russian Embassy told Russia Profile in E-mailed comments today. With these fresh charges over immigration it looks certain that there is no evidence of espionage on Zatuliveter. She says she will fight attempts to deport her.

“It’s a strange case,” said Andrei Soldatov, a secret services expert and the head of the Agentura.Ru Web site. “She was not caught passing on secret material or secret documents. She is not accused of espionage, she has just been named as a potential sleeper agent. Usually counterintelligence uses this kind of description if they have obtained the name of a spy from a source, but that is all.”

Hancock, who sits on the Defense Committee, is now at the center of a media storm in Britain. In recent months he has tabled a number of sensitive questions on Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent and has a reputation for being more tolerant of Russia, inviting speculation that he was somehow being exploited by Zatuliveter in a spectacular femme fatale spy ruse. “I am quite sure that doing the job Zatuliveter was doing, the Russian authorities were interested in her and any information they could obtain from her,” said Margot Light, an expert on Russia and emeritus professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “But I think it is extremely unlikely that she would have been able to gain any information that wasn’t already available in the public domain.”

“It looks like the British intelligence services were tipped off with the name of this girl, but had received no other information. Now they have failed to produce any evidence so they have decided simply to expel her,” said Soldatov.

Soldatov said the leak of information could have come from a Russian defector in the United States, since Zatuliveter’s arrest on Thursday was preceded only days before by an article in the Washington Times detailing a manhunt now underway in the National Security Agency (NSA) at its Forde Meade headquarters to find an SVR mole. The story for the Washington Times cited Colonel Alexander Poteyev, the Russian defector from the SVR who fled Russia less than a week before Medvedev visited the United States, after which the CIA busted the largest Russian spy ring since the Cold War. “It’s speculation but the tip-off could have come from there,” said Soldatov.

But the question still remains: is she really a Russian spy? Soldatov said MI5 could well have been working on real intelligence, but which was distorted in the first place because of lingering Soviet malpractice within the Russian secret services. “The problem was that Soviet intelligence officers loved to include on its list of agents for the Soviet Union people who only had sympathies for the Soviet Union. These people were never actually recruited – they were simply put on this list.” Soviet agents often did this just to show the Center back in Moscow that they were busy recruiting. “To be frank, I cannot rule out a situation where some stupid guy in the Russian Embassy in London just found the name of a girl and included her on a list, which ended up being leaked to MI5,” said Soldatov.

Tabloid vaudeville

Meanwhile Hancock has been vilified in the British press. The revelation that he had fought against the deportation of a second, unrelated, Russian girl only provided the Daily Mail with more ammunition for a gratuitous hate-campaign against the non-photogenic liberal democrat. Apart from identifying Hancock’s particular “obsession” with Russian girls, the Daily Mail also labeled him a “womanizer” in general who “although a somewhat unlikely lothario, cut a swathe through the women of Hampshire.”

All that was left for the hatchet-job was tweaking the stale Anna Chapman news paradigm (inserting the name Ekaterina Zatuliveter with new photoshop-enhanced photographs) and the headline was written. “‘She was the best person for the job:’ MP caught in alleged honeytrap defends decision to employ blonde Russian ‘spy’,” read Britain’s Daily Mail.
Russia meanwhile is reading from its now probably tattered spy-diplomacy script, this time selecting “vaudeville” from the various forms of comic theater to describe the British “media circus.” Having dealt with large SVR spy busts in America and Georgia this year, Russian Foreign Ministry officials are probably reciting protocol in their sleep. “We have no illusions that there are and will be rather influential forces that are not interested in normalizing Russian-British relations,” reads the Russian Foreign Ministry Web site.
Damage to relations

The latest British-Russian espionage bust – the history of which includes such classics as the British “spy rock scandal” in 2006 – throws up an obstacle to circumspect warming in chilly relations between London and Moscow. Foreign Secretary William Hague came to Moscow for a low-key meeting with his Russian counterpart, as well as President Dmitry Medvedev, and expressed hopes of a “thaw” in relations.

The timing of the Zatuliveter bust also raised eyebrows. “I’m quite perplexed by why the [Brits] should do this now, when our Russian relations were just improving. It would have been so much more sensible to leave her there and see what happened even if they thought the Russians had approached her,” said Light.

Despite the recent phase of warmer rhetoric from the United States and now even NATO toward Russia, British relations have not shown the same improvement due to what Hague called the “intractable” differences in relations, such as the extradition disputes over Boris Berezovsky and Andrei Lugovoi, to name but two. Still, prevalent fear-mongering in the British press makes any improvement harder. “Worse, Britain and most other NATO members have dropped their guard, becoming soft targets for the Kremlin’s expert spycraft,” writes Edward Lucas, the arch-Russophobe of the British community of Russia experts and author of the alarmist book, “The New Cold War.”

The Russian Embassy in London told Russia Profile that “Today we were told that the authorities have agreed to allow an Embassy representative to meet the detained Russian woman. A representative from the consulate is planning to meet Zatuliveter in the near future.”

This long-coming but minor breakthrough for the Russian side may limit damage to relations, but the scandal could still have ramifications. “The chances of the Russian thinking that they have to respond tit-for-tat are quite high because that’s the way it always goes. It gives the Russians a pretext for saying ‘you just can’t believe them when they say they want to improve relations’,” said Light.
The source
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