Russia twists spy row to its own advantage

Moscow is trying to turn the Anglo-Russian spying row to its advantage, by using it as a pretext to undermine the neighbouring republic of Estonia.

As more signs emerged yesterday that the spy row between Moscow and London was being allowed to subside, there were further allegations from the Russians that the nine British diplomats accused of "spying" had been investigating the possible transfer of arms and nuclear materials to terrorists via the small Baltic state. But these allegations are probably just crude propaganda, diplomats in London and Moscow say.

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said last week that its security services had caught an agent working for MI6, adding yesterday, for the first time, that the man was one of its own. A spokesman told Interfax news agency that the alleged spy was "a middle-ranking diplomat with good prospects". Officials threw no further light on whether Russia still intends to throw out nine British diplomats in response, prompting the most serious show- down over spying between London and Moscow since 1989.

But the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) yesterday renewed its claim that Estonia, independent from Moscow since 1991, had been involved in smuggling weapons to the IRA and to Islamic separatists in Chechnya. The FSB said the arms smuggling took placethrough Estonia's volunteer national guard, Kaitseliit (Defence League), and its secret services - an uncorroborated claim that Estonia has hotly denied, and which has prompted both sides to expel a diplomat.

Estonia still has a border dispute with Moscow, and tends to be sympathetic towards Chechnya. The Baltic republic also has a reputation for discriminating against its Russian population. "With the election campaign in full swing, many candidates, including Mr Yeltsin, happily play the patriotic card," said Izvestia yesterday. "Estonia is the most convenient target for imperial displeasure."

Allegations that senior Estonian officers were trying to sell weapons, explosives, and even nuclear materials to the IRA are seen in London as a way to elicit British sympathy for Russian action against "bandits" based in Estonia. Similar allegations preceded the invasion of Chechnya, which was portrayed as a hotbed of organised crime.

On Sunday, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass said the anti-terrorist branch of the FSB expressed willingness to exchange information with the UK and the Irish Republic on weapons smuggled from Estonia to the IRA.

On 6 May the FSB alleged that "political forces in Estonia deliberately seek to aggravate relations with Russia" by channelling weapons to Russian criminal groups and "illegal armed formations" including Chechen groups through the "extremist" Kaitseliit. Kaitseliit is in fact an official organisation playing a key role in the development of Estonia's defences while its 3,500-strong army is in its formative stages.

The latest allegations follow a stream of threats to crush Estonia if it joins Nato. Boris Yeltsin, and Presidential candidates General Alexander Lebed and Vladimir Zhirinovsky have all threatened invasion.

Western experts treat the reports of any Estonian connection with the IRA with extreme scepticism. Diplomatic sources dismiss them out of hand. David McDuff, an affiliate of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies and an expert in Estonian and Russian affairs said: "This is really crude Boy's Own stuff. But some of the media have been swallowing it."

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