Russia Attempted to Breach U.K. Visa Processor, Bellingcat Says

(Bloomberg) -- Russia’s main security service attempted to create a backdoor into the company that provides computer and logistical support to the British consulate, the investigative website Bellingcat reported Friday.

The Federal Security Service, or FSB, recruited an unidentified Russian IT specialist employed at the visa-processing service used by the U.K. and Switzerland by offering to resolve immigration problems that his foreign-born wife and child were facing in Moscow, according to Bellingcat. The investigation is based on interviews with the employee, who fled Russia in 2016, and a review of his deposition to the U.S. authorities, where he is seeking political asylum. Bellingcat also heard recordings he claimed were conversations with his FSB handler.

The report comes amid questions about how two Russians, identified by U.K. authorities as intelligence agents, were able to obtain British visas using false documents in order to carry out a nerve-agent attack against former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The men, interviewed on the Kremlin-funded RT television channel in September, said they were tourists traveling under their real names. Previous Bellingcat reporting identified them as decorated military-intelligence officers. They made repeated trips to the U.K. and other European countries starting in 2014, Bellingcat said.

The March attack, which the Skripals survived but which later killed a British woman who came in contact with the poison, has strained Moscow’s relations with London and other Western capitals. Britain and its allies say the Kremlin was behind the assassination attempt and together expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats following the poisonings. Russia denies involvement.

The employee, who worked at a division of Paris-based Teleperformance Group Inc., managed to flee Russia before doing any significant work on the back door, according to Bellingcat. The website said it does not have evidence that the British visa issuance system was breached.

Teleperformance did not respond to calls or an emailed query, while the FSB press service did not answer repeated calls. The British Embassy in Moscow said that the company’s role in issuing visas is “purely administrative.”

“They have no involvement with the decision-making process,” the embassy’s press service said in a text message.

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