Cook acts to counter Russian crime threat

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Tried and trusty themes like Nato enlargement, regional issues and the Middle East were naturally high on the agenda. But the spotlight during Robin Cook's talks in Moscow yesterday was on a very different topic: urgent steps to keep the ever-growing Russian Mafiya from establishing a major beachhead in Britain. The Foreign Secretary said yesterday that he had made "serious progress" on the crime issue.

Thus far, the combination of geographical separation from the Continent, tight border controls and the absence of a big emigre community has allowed Britain to escape the fate of countries like Germany, Belgium and Austria, whose local underworlds have been largely taken over by Russian gangs - and a memorandum of understanding finalised this week is intended to help keep things that way.

"The Mafiya," said one senior British police officer specialising in Russian organised crime, "basically looks at Britain as a pretty nice place, where you can buy nice houses and send your son to school, a kind of sanctuary which no one wants to foul up."

But the warning signs are clear. The Russian population in Britain, both legal and illegal, is growing, as an overstretched British visa service struggles to keep up. Meanwhile, Russian vice rings, traditionally a vehicle for infiltrating and taking over local criminal organisations, have started to spring up in London and elsewhere. "These people are exceptionally violent and once they gain a foothold, they expand incredibly fast," the officer said.

This new non-military threat from Russia is a major reason why Tony Blair wants to make the fight against international crime the main topic at next year's G-8 summit in Birmingham.

The big dangers are drugs and money laundering, where the major Russian crime syndicates have set their sights on the City of London, whose big banks are a perfect "stamp of approval" for tainted funds channelled out of Russia. Under the memorandum, Britain would gain access to Russian records and intelligence data.

Some 5,000 gangs are reckoned to be operating in Russia, dominating entire sectors of the economy. Most of them, however, are purely domestic, and British intelligence focuses primarily on a "few dozen" major figures who have real international links.

A current squeeze on traffic through the Balkans has helped turn Russia into the main transit route for drugs into Europe. Additionally, British police say, under-used former army laboratories in St Petersburg are now a prime source of the raw chemicals needed for the designer drugs fashionable in Western Europe.

Britain has already seconded a Customs and Excise officer to its Moscow embassy to liaise with the local authorities. But although official Russian figures claim the crime rate declined in 1996, this probably reflects the consolidation of organised crime and its spread into "legitimate" businesses, rather than any successful counter-offensive by police and security forces. These latter are corrupt and acutely short of resources.