As Putin Attempts Thaw, MI6 Chief Says Don’t Underestimate Britain

(Bloomberg) -- Alex Younger, chief of the U.K.’s foreign spy agency MI6, named Russia as a major proponent of state-sponsored cyber and terrorist attacks and warned the Kremlin there is a cost attached to every attack.

He told Russia not to underestimate Britain’s “determination’’ and “capabilities,’’ after President Vladimir Putin sought to melt at least a layer of diplomatic frost at the Group of 20 meeting in Argentina by praising Britain as an “important partner.’’

Relations between the U.K. and Russia have been at the lowest ebb since the Cold War following the poisoning of a former Russian double-agent and his daughter in March. That attack, which used a military-grade nerve agent, left one civilian dead. Prime Minister Theresa May retaliated by expelling dozens of Russian spies and persuading other western allies to follow suit.

Asked about his responsibility for state-sponsored terrorism during a news conference at the G-20, Putin dismissed the question as a matter for “the conscience of those who say that.’’

Of the U.K., he added, “I hope that some day -- and I proceed from the assumption that this must happen as soon as possible -- we can overcome the difficulty in our relations.’’

New ‘Espionage’

Making only his second public speech as head of MI6, which he’s led for four years, Younger highlighted how the U.K. faces adversaries who regard themselves as being in a state of perpetual confrontation, using a “hybrid’’ mix of traditional spy-craft and modern cyber-based approaches, such as Twitter bots and the spread of fake news online in order to “exploit ambiguity.’’

“When faced by these kinds of attacks, our approach with our allies is to seek to attach a cost to this behavior,” Younger said. “Our intention is for the Russian state to conclude that, whatever benefits it thinks it is accruing from this activity, it is not worth the risk.”

Following the poisoning in Salisbury, southern England, the British police and spy agencies have repeatedly highlighted how they follow due legal process. That’s in direct contrast, they say, with the disinformation spread by Russia and its operatives flouting international law.

Arms Race

Younger said the U.K. spy agencies are in an arms race to secure better technology than rival nation states. “Simply put, we’ve got to innovate faster than they can,” he said.

British lawmakers expressed incredulity and disbelief when two Russians identified by British police as the suspects in the poisoning case appeared on the Russian state-funded TV station RT in September to claim they’d merely been sightseeing in the historic city.

“I should emphasize that even as the Russian state seeks to destabilize us, we do not seek to destabilize Russia. We do not seek an escalation. If we see a change in Russian behavior, we will respond positively,” Younger said at St Andrews University Monday.

Younger, 55, an alumnus of the Scottish university, was speaking to an audience of students. He also reported that his organization is still actively disrupting Islamist inspired attacks from overseas.

He added that relationships with European Union agencies will carry on despite Brexit, emphasizing how Britain has helped France and Germany counter terrorism.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.