The dismissed counter-intelligence chief, Nikolai Golushko, was quoted yesterday as saying that the damage done by Britain's spy 'could compare with damage caused by (Oleg) Penkovsky', the senior officer executed in 1963 for spying for Britain and the US.
The timing suggests some connection with the case of Aldrich Ames, the CIA officer said to have betrayed American agents in Russia over nearly a decade and caused the execution of as many as 10 of them. But Alexander Mikhailov, a spokesman for the counter-intelligence service, yesterday denied any link. He said the arrested official had worked for Britain for only a year. During this time Mr Ames had already been transferred out of the CIA's Soviet- affairs section to work on narcotics. But he may still have been privy to information about Russia.
Russia regularly makes general statements about the arrest of alleged foreign spies but usually gives no details. It scoffed at Washington for creating such a loud fuss over the arrest of Mr Ames.
It said yesterday that Britain had received 'secret information of an economic and military character', such as latest weapons research and details of 'military-technical co-operation between Russia and foreign countries'.
Sergei Stepashin, deputy chief of the Counter-Intelligence Service, told a briefing in Moscow that 20 people had been arrested last year.
Oleg Penkovsky, a 44-year- old military intelligence colonel, was sentenced to death by firing squad on 11 May 1963. Since then the old Soviet criminal code has been revised. Untouched, though, is Section A of Article 64. Betrayal of the Motherland - high treason - is still punishable by death, or 10 to 15 years in jail.
Mr Golushko's claim is a bold one - so bold that it goes beyond the simple hyperbole of a proud counter-intelligence officer after a job well done.
Their motives differ sharply. Penkovsky, though reviled as a seedy traitor, was driven by rage, perhaps idealism, but not cash. According to Moscow, Britain's new recruit spied for money - just as the FBI says Mr Ames did.
Penkovsky was perhaps Britain's most valuable spy, credited by some with providing information that helped prevent the Cold War turning hot. He was identified as a reserve colonel in the artillery who worked on the State Committee for the Co-ordination of Scientific Research Work. His real assignment was with the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet General Staff.
What Britain's latest alleged recruit did is uncertain. A statement yesterday only said 'a top official in an organisation within Russia's military industrial complex'. He is said to have had access to data on weapons research, experimental design work and - like Penkovsky - 'co-operation' with foreign countries.
But the Penkovsky saga is one neither Moscow nor London like to dwell on. Russia suffered a humiliating betrayal. Britain's MI6 suffered the humiliation of explaining to Washington, co-sponsor of the venture, the role of Greville Wynne, an erratic, chronically indiscreet and near-alcoholic part-time agent who acted as a go-between and got eight years in a Soviet jail.
What is it about Penkovsky that Mr Golushko wants to recall? Perhaps he was merely seeking a way to bracket his own career in intelligence, which began as Penkovsky was being exposed. Why he lost his job is itself an enigma as mysterious as any.
Or perhaps Mr Golushko's reference to the past is his way of updating a Pravda editorial after Penkovsky's 1963 trial: 'In our time, when the ratio of power on the world scene has changed radically in favour of socialism . . . international imperialism has still not renounced its vile plans against the socialist state and continues to organise various intrigues against socialism.'
Russia's spies now wrestle with a different ratio of power. But how much has the message changed otherwise?Reuse content