Britain tries to play down 'spying' row: Tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions with Russians may damage bilateral relations and prove espionage has survived Cold War

BRITISH officials tried to convince the public yesterday that a new tit-for- tat expulsion row with Russia had nothing to do with spying. Intelligence experts believe, however, that the affair proves espionage has not ended with the Cold War and shows Moscow's distaste for the West's hypocrisy in denouncing Russia while continuing its own spying.

The Foreign Office said it had asked a Russian diplomat to leave London because Moscow had first expelled a British diplomat. Britain regretted the demand, which it said was 'at odds with the bilateral relationship we are trying to build'. A spokeswoman at the British embassy here declined to discuss the reasons for the row but said the usual accusations of spying were not behind it. Russian officials were unavailable.

When the explusions were announced, journalists assumed there must be a connection with the case of Vadim Sintsov, a Russian arms industry official held in Moscow on charges of spying for Britain. On Thursday, Mr Sintsov appeared on Russian television to confess he had passed secrets to the British. He was arrested in January but the Russians only chose to make this public in March after the US embarrassed them by catching Aldrich Ames, a CIA official charged with working for the Kremlin.

The spokeswoman could not confirm press reports that the diplomat lost from the British embassy was the political counsellor, John Scarlett, said by Russian officials to have been the head of the MI6 office in Moscow. 'One thing I can say,' offered the spokeswoman, 'is that there is no connection with either the Sintsov case or the Ames case.'

It seemed significant that the expulsion row coincided with the appearance of Mr Sintsov on Russian television. His confession, apparently filmed in his cell in Moscow's Lefortovo Prison, was reminiscent of the public self-denunciations the KGB used to force traitors and dissidents to make in Soviet times, for which they sometimes won lighter sentences. Mr Sintsov is charged with high treason, which still carries a maximum penalty of death.

The middle-aged, bespectacled spy, who had an unspecified 'high post' in the military-industrial complex, said the British had originally recruited him outside Russia and had wanted to know about Russia's arms supplies to the Middle East.

'A certain James Self began to work with me,' said Mr Sintsov. 'And some time after that, he introduced me to his successor as liaison officer.' Whether this successor was the expelled diplomat was not clear.

How much Mr Sintsov has served the West's interests and damaged Moscow's security is unclear. Nikolai Golushko, recently sacked by Boris Yeltsin as head of Russian intelligence, compared him to Oleg Penkov sky, the colonel executed by Moscow for helping the US and Britain at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. But Mr Golushko may have been exaggerating to match Washington's claim that Mr Ames had done unprecedented harm to the US.

The atmosphere of extreme mutual suspicion and hostility which prevailed in Penkovsky's day is gone and East and West are more or less co-operating. But few doubt that spying is still a career option with a future.

In Russia, many scientists and people with a military background are suffering acute economic hardship and some may be prepared to sell their knowledge to the highest bidder, be it Britain, Libya or Iraq. In the West, there is anxiety about the condition of the arsenals of the former Soviet Union and about Russian arms sales, both subjects of interest to MI6 and the CIA.

(Photograph omitted)

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