Russian leader Vladimir Putin was likely to have known about the operation in London to murder the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, it was reported last night.
Wikileaks documents seen by the Guardian newspaper also claimed that Russia poses a “real intelligence threat” to Britain, with suspected spies frequently applying for UK visas.
Regarding the Litvinenko assassination, Washington's top diplomat in Europe, Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state, questioned whether “rogue elements” in Russia's security services could have carried out the hit without Putin's direct approval.
A scenario where the Kremlin was unaware of the Litvinenko plot was far-fetched “given Putin's attention to detail”, Fried said, in secret conversations in Paris.
The Russians were behaving with “increasing self-confidence to the point of arrogance”, he told the French, arguing for a tougher stance towards Moscow.
Fried made his remarks just two weeks after Litvinenko died an agonising death from polonium-210 poisoning in a London hospital.
On December 7 2006, Fried met Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, senior diplomatic adviser to Jacques Chirac, France's president at the time.
A series of leaked diplomatic cables from the US embassy in London, released by Wikileaks, |also paint a gloomy picture of British-Russian relations in the three years since the fatal 2006 poisoning of Mr Litvinenko, the Russian spy-turned-dissident. On August 10 2008, US officials reported back on Gordon Brown's first one-to-one meeting with Dmitry Medvedev at the G8 summit in Japan. Medvedev had just taken over as Russia's president, with ex-president Vladimir Putin becoming prime minister.
British officials described the Brown-Medvedev encounter as positive. The Russia department of the Foreign Office (FCO) expressed hopes that Medvedev was a leader “more open to domestic liberalisation and co-operation with Britain” than Putin, his hard-line, Anglophobic predecessor.
Despite “signs of a thaw in top-level UK-Russia relations”, the FCO said it saw no reason to remove sanctions imposed on Russia. In July 2007 the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband expelled four Russian diplomats and cut links with Russia's FSB spy agency after Moscow refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, Litvinenko's alleged killer. Miliband also imposed a visa regime on Kremlin officials visiting London.
The cable said: “According to the FCO, HMG (Her Majesty's Government) has had good reasons to refuse many Russian visa requests. HMG officials see a real ‘intelligence threat from' Russia (in addition to China) and regret a ‘missed opportunity in the late 1990s and early 2000s to assess these intelligence threats'.”
Meanwhile, Mr Putin told US officials to keep their noses out of Russian affairs in a combative response to criticisms of the way his country was run.
His appearance on the US talk show Larry King Live came before new cables were published last night that suggested that Russia under Putin was a “virtual mafia state”.