The Russian security services have arrested an employee of TNK-BP, British Petroleum's joint venture in the country, on charges of espionage. The move seemed certain to worsen the already tense relations between Britain and Russia.
TNK-BP is co-owned by companies run by the Russian billionaires Mikhail Fridman and Viktor Vekselberg, who have repeatedly said they do not want to sell their stake to a Kremlin-controlled company such as Gazprom. Analysts said that the move could be part of an intimidation campaign by Kremlin hardliners to ensure that the company passes into safe Kremlin hands before Dmitry Medvedev takes over as President in May.
A statement from the FSB said that Ilya Zaslavsky, an employee of the company who holds Russian and US citizenship, was detained on 12 March for the "collection of commercial classified information for a number of foreign oil and gas companies".
On Wednesday, Russian officials raided the Moscow offices of TNK-BP, questioning employees and searching the premises. Yesterday the FSB, the Russian federal security service claimed to have found incriminating evidence during the search, including classified documents and "business cards of employees of foreign military agencies and the CIA".
Mr Zaslavsky's brother Alexander, who runs the British Alumni Club in Moscow, has also been detained. The club is made up of Russians who studied at British universities and is supported by the British Council.
Russia and Britain clashed earlier this year when the Russian foreign ministry closed down the British Council's regional offices, accusing it of lacking a legal basis for its work. Many Russian officials, including the president-in-waiting, Mr Medvedev, have accused the British Council of being a front for spies, and the timing of the current scandal seems suspicious to many involved.
A TNK-BP statement said: "The company has never countenanced or supported any activities designed to contradict or damage the interests of Russia."
A spokesman for the British Embassy in Moscow said that the embassy was "monitoring the situation closely and in contact with BP". The company is Britain's largest foreign investment in Russia.
The Russian press portrayed the raids on TNK-BP's offices as the continuation of a campaign against the company, which is one of the biggest remaining oil companies not controlled by the Kremlin. The Russian government has moved increasingly to bring the energy sector under Kremlin control in recent years.
TNK-BP was last year forced out of the lucrative Kovykta natural gas project in Siberia, selling its stake to Gazprom after threats were made to revoke its licence. The company is said to be a target for a faction of Kremlin hardliners, which include the FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev, and Igor Sechin, chairman of the state oil giant Rosneft and deputy head of the presidential administration.Reuse content