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Expulsion of Russian spies delivered a ‘most significant strategic blow’: MI5 chief

The expulsion of more than 400 suspected Russian spies, often masquerading as “diplomats”, from across Europe this year has struck the “most significant strategic blow” against Moscow in recent history and taken Vladimir Putin by surprise, Britain’s domestic spy chief said.

In his annual update on the threat to Britain, Security Service (MI5) Director General Ken McCallum said a massive number of Russian officials had been expelled from across the world including over 600 from Europe of which more than 400 were judged to be spies.

“This has struck the most significant strategic blow against the Russian Intelligence Services in recent European history,” he said in a speech at MI5’s London headquarters on Wednesday. “And together with coordinated waves of sanctions, the scale has taken Putin by surprise.”

He said the response followed a template set by Britain in the wake of the nerve agent poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, southern England, in 2018 which prompted a wave of diplomatic expulsions.

McCallum said Britain had refused more than 100 Russian diplomatic visa applications on national security grounds since then.

Britain has been one of the strongest supporters of Ukraine since the Russian invasion, and McCallum said the importance of that backing was reflected in Moscow making “silly claims” such as Britain being involved in blowing up Nord Stream gas pipelines in September.

“The serious point is that the UK must be ready for Russian aggression for years to come,” he said.

Beijing’s long game

McCallum also repeated warnings about Chinese attempts to influence lawmakers and those in public life. He said Beijing was “playing the long game” in trying to manipulate opinion by cultivating contacts with not just prominent lawmakers but those in their early careers in public life, such as local councillors who might later become MPs.

“If they are prepared to invest this amount of patience, this amount of money, this amount of effort in cultivating very large volumes of potential assets across the whole of our system, that looks to me like a large and enduring challenge,” he said.

Perhaps more alarmingly Chinese authorities were monitoring and intimidating the Chinese diaspora, with actions ranging from forcible repatriation to assault.

McCallum referenced an incident that occurred in October in Manchester, when a man who was protesting outside a Chinese consulate said he was dragged inside the grounds by masked men, and then kicked and punched.

“To intimidate and harass UK nationals or those who have made the UK their home cannot be tolerated,” McCallum said.

China has rejected such claims as groundless, accusing critics of provoking confrontation.

Beijing’s long tentacles

The UK is not the only country that has experienced similar problems with China. At the turn of October and November, German and Dutch authorities announced that they have discovered Chinese “extraterritorial police” operating stations in their countries. China responded by saying that these were in fact centres to help Chinese citizens renew documents.

The investigation in Germany was launched after a Spanish activist group Safeguard Defenders had informed the German authorities that China had set up undeclared police offices in 30 countries, including Germany.

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