MI6 chief uses rare speech to warn Russia: don’t underestimate the West

  • It is only Alex Younger’s second public speech since becoming head of the intelligence service four years ago
  • MI6 boss told students if they ‘want to make a difference’ and think they ‘have what it takes’ then the chances are they could become a spy
PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 December, 2018, 12:56pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2018, 10:21pm

The chief of Britain’s foreign intelligence service warned the Kremlin on Monday not to underestimate the West after a brazen nerve agent attack on a retired double agent in England that the UK blamed on Russia.

In only his second major speech since being made head in 2014 of the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, Alex Younger insisted Russia has a stance of “perpetual confrontation” with the West.

After the attack on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who betrayed dozens of agents to MI6, Britain’s allies in Europe and the United States took its side and ordered the biggest expulsion of Russian diplomats since the height of the cold war.

Britain identified the nerve agent deployed in the English town of Salisbury as Novichok, a highly potent group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The Russian state used a military-grade chemical weapon on UK soil,” Younger told students at the University of St Andrews in Scotland where he once studied economics and computer science before joining the British army. “Our intention is for the Russian state to conclude that, whatever the benefits it thinks it is accruing from this activity, they are not worth the risk.”

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Moscow has repeatedly denied involvement and accused British intelligence agencies of staging the attack to stoke anti-Russian hysteria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to melt some of the diplomatic frost at the Group of 20 meeting in Argentina by praising Britain as an “important partner”.

Asked about his responsibility for state-sponsored terrorism, Putin dismissed the question as a matter for “the conscience of those who say that”.

“I should emphasise that even as the Russian state seeks to destabilise us, we do not seek to destabilise Russia. We do not seek escalation. If we see a change in Russian behaviour, we will respond positively,” Younger insisted.

The 55-year-old claimed that Britain’s spies have stopped several Islamic State plots originating overseas.

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Less than four months before the UK is expected to leave the European Union on March 29, Younger said MI6 continues to work with partner agencies to strengthen “indispensable security ties” in Europe.

He also claimed the UK had helped France and Germany prevent terrorist attacks.

MI6, the home of fictional spies such as John le Carre’s George Smiley and Ian Fleming’s James Bond, has the job of defending Britain, and its interests, abroad.

A career spy who joined MI6 as the Soviet Union was crumbling, Younger stressed the need for espionage to embrace the new.

“The era of the fourth industrial revolution calls for a fourth-generation espionage: fusing our traditional human skills with accelerated innovation, new partnerships and a mindset that mobilises diversity and empowers the young,” he said.

Younger compared the situation to an arms race to secure better technology than rival nation states. “Simply put, we’ve got to innovate faster than they can,” he said.

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In a recruitment pitch, Younger gave some details of his own experiences, including drinking obscure home-made alcohol to try to penetrate an organisation intent on genocide in the Western Balkans in 1990s.

“If you want to make a difference and you think you might have what it takes, then the chances are that you do have what it takes, and we hope you will step forward.”

Reuters, Bloomberg