I Was Besieged by Putin Thugs; VLADIMIR PUTIN: 'He Has Raised All Sorts of Problems,' Says Sir Tony, Right

Article excerpt

Byline: Will Stewart

In a hard-hitting interview, the outgoing British Ambassador to Moscow reveals how his family was targeted by sinister fanatics, tells why he worries about bugging -- and warns that this is a 'dangerous moment'

THE British Embassy in Moscow has come under a greater barrage of bugging and espionage from the Russian secret service than at any time since the end of the Cold War, according to outgoing Ambassador Sir Tony Brenton.

In a frank and wide-ranging interview on the eve of his departure, he reveals that British diplomats in the Russian Federation again feel they are being closely monitored by the Kremlin - and that the eavesdropping is on the increase.

'One of the sad things about working here is that you have to assume you are being listened to,' he said in an exclusive interview with The Mail on Sunday. 'The signs are, especially in regard to this Embassy, that we have found ourselves under rather more pressure.

I can't say more in detail. But the evidence is there that we need to be careful.' Sir Tony - who will next week be replaced by Anne Pringle, Britain's first female Ambassador to Russia - denied rumours in Moscow that his two cats were regularly checked for bugging devices.

The suggestion may seem fanciful, but the Soviet KGB once successfully implanted a listening device into a US ambassador's dog. However, Sir Tony made it clear that ever-more elaborate measures are needed to avoid the attention of Russian intelligence agents.

'You eventually acquire a cautionary sense about the sort of things it is sensible to say,' he said. 'I still squabbled with my children with the same vigour that I would have done in the UK, but there are some pieces of official business that it is best not to talk about other than in very protected circumstances.'

As Our Man in Moscow for the past four years, Sir Tony has become used to speaking his mind. Before he arrived to take up the Ambassador's post in 2004, Tony Blair told him that relations with Russia were excellent and he should ensure they stayed that way.

But rarely, even in the darkest days of the Cold War, has a British envoy to the Kremlin faced such sustained professional and personal attacks as this Cambridge-educated diplomat, who has previously served in Washington, Brussels and Cairo.

In 2006, his ambassadorial Range Rover was tailgated at high speed through the streets of the Russian capital by militant members of Nashi, Vladimir Putin's zealous youth movement, who went on to harass him in shops and restaurants and intimidate his family.

The plain-speaking diplomat has been required to robustly defend Britain's interests in an escalating series of political crises. They include the facing down of the Russian government in an embarrassing row over an alleged British espionage device hidden in a hollowedout rock in 2006.

Then there was the venomous dispute that simmered through 2007 over the murder of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, the resulting tit-for-tat 'spy' expulsion and Moscow's refusal to extradite prime suspect Andrei Lugovoy.

Last February, the Russian foreign ministry, ignoring the usual discreet conventions of diplomatic protocol, mounted a blatant campaign for the Ambassador to be sent home early after he loudly condemned this year's forced closure of British Council operations in Russia.

He has also spearheaded a bruising and costly battle over BP's operations in the Federation and has been a key player in the chilly international standoff over the recent war with Georgia.

With such a record, there is little surprise that some in Whitehall were reluctant for Sir Tony to be interviewed.

Indeed, there have even been whispers that outgoing ambassadors are being discouraged from sending valedictory communiques to the Foreign Office because of a tendency for some to vent their spleen at Government policy and the Foreign Office. …