As William Hague and Philip Hammond prepare to meet their Russian counterparts in London this week, Jason Lewis reveals how a very suspicious spying slur is threatening to derail the reconciliation.
Denis Keefe, right, in the Caucasus, at Black Cliff Lake
To the outside world he is the epitome of diplomatic decorum: polite, softly spoken, with razor-sharp intellect. He has friends all over eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where he has a record of distinguished service on behalf of Britain, and is known for his keen ear for choral music and love of sailing.
Having joined the Foreign Office 30 years ago, straight out of Cambridge, he has earned a reputation for his brilliant mind and as an unfailingly safe pair of hands.
And yet to the astonishment of those who know him, Denis Keefe, the respected deputy ambassador to Russia, has for the past few months been trailed by a bizarre cloud of rumours and intrigue straight out of a Jason Bourne film.
Wherever Mr Keefe goes outside Moscow, he runs the risk of being accosted by Russian journalists and accused of being a spy.
Regional news reports froth with insinuations that he is something far more subversive than a diplomat, and has been sent by Britain to ferret out information and undermine the government of President Vladimir Putin.
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British officials have tried to play down official anger at the hounding of Mr Keefe, which The Sunday Telegraph is reporting for the first time in Britain.
But the accusations, described by diplomatic sources as “an unprecedented attack on a very senior diplomat”, threaten to cast a shadow over a meeting this week in London designed to “reset” the thorny relationship between Britain and Russia.
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, and Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, will meet their Russian counterparts for a “strategic dialogue” intended to look beyond a series of angry rows that have hampered cooperation between the two countries.
They include the recent decision to grant asylum in Britain to Andrei Borodin, a billionaire former Russian banker accused by Moscow of fraud, Russia’s attempts to hinder investigations into the poisoning in London of the former spy Alexander Litvinenko, and the beginning this week of the posthumous “show trial” of the late Sergei Magnitsky.
Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who worked for a London-based hedge fund, uncovered what is thought to be the largest tax fraud ever committed in Russia, but on reporting it was himself imprisoned, and later died in custody, aged 37.
The allegations against Mr Keefe are being seen in some circles as a deliberate attempt to discredit British officials in Moscow and to undermine efforts to improve relations with Russia.
Last month, the career diplomat, who speaks six languages including fluent Russian, was confronted by a Russian journalist, who demanded: “They say you are a spy for MI6 – tell us, does James Bond exist?”
Evidently irritated, Mr Keefe, 54, replied: “I don’t think this is a serious matter or that it has anything to do with me.”
Another reporter pressed him on his alleged MI6 status: “Can you give a straightforward answer to this question? Do you confirm or deny it?” He was quoted as replying: “Please. This is not a serious question. Please …”
Mr Keefe, a father of six who lists his interests as singing, sailing, walking and learning languages, was also questioned about his links to Russian opposition figures.
One of his first diplomatic postings, on joining the Foreign Office in 1982, was to Prague. Before the 1989 Velvet Revolution, he made friends with opponents of the one-party state, including Vaclav Havel. He later returned to help the newly democratic Czech Republic prepare to join Nato and the European Union.
He was also ambassador to Georgia during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, and several reports used that against him – accusing him of becoming involved in the dispute over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. One report said he “actively advocated Georgia’s accession to Nato and urged speedy modernisation of its army, presenting Russia as a direct threat to the former Soviet republic”.
Neither episode endeared him to hardliners in the Putin regime and the incidents appear calculated to undermine him. A Siberian television channel, NTN-4, devoted a two-and-a-half minute slot to alleging that a former spy had listed Mr Keefe “as an officer of the secret intelligence service”. It stated that “in MI6, like in our intelligence services, there is no such thing as a former officer”.
The presenter questioned whether it was wise to invite Mr Keefe — “an intelligence service officer of a foreign country” — to Akademgorodok, a university town which is the hub of Russia’s cutting edge science and nuclear research.
In December, Mr Keefe faced a similar attack on a visit to the Ural Mountains to award diplomas to Open University graduates. One report bluntly stated: “Denis Keefe can be described as an undercover spy with his diplomatic position serving as a smoke screen.”
A news website warned students, officials and teachers to be wary in case Mr Keefe tried to “recruit” them. “A person well-versed in recruiting agents like Denis Keefe, bearing in mind his serious diplomatic experience, could easily catch in his net the immature soul of a graduate or a participant in Britain’s Open University programme,” it said.
“And you don’t need a codebreaker to work out what that could lead to.”
Diplomatic sources have told The Sunday Telegraph that the continuing allegations, which appeared to stem from a discredited list of MI6 agents posted online in 2005, were “ridiculous”.
They come after painstaking efforts to rebuild Anglo-Russian relations, following the Litvinenko poisoning in London in 2006.
An inquest into his death will open on May 1, but his murder led to a series of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions. The then British ambassador, Anthony Brenton, was subjected to a four-month campaign of harassment, with members of a pro-Kremlin youth group interrupting his speeches, stalking him at weekends and banging fists on his diplomatic Jaguar.
In an embarrassing revelation, British agents were caught red-handed using a transmitter hidden inside a fake rock, planted on a Moscow street, so spies could pass them secrets.
At the same time, Russian police raided offices of the British Council, claiming that the body – which promotes British culture abroad – had violated Russian laws, including tax regulation.
“It is a cultural, not a political institution and we strongly reject any attempt to link it to Russia’s failure to cooperate with our efforts to bring the murderer of Alexander Litvinenko to justice,” said a Foreign Office spokesman at the time.
Leading British companies, including BP, faced problems operating in Russia, which had a negative effect on trade for both countries. More than 600 UK companies are active in Russia and Russian firms account for about a quarter of foreign share flotations on the London Stock Exchange.
Two years ago, David Cameron signed a series of trade deals and a symbolic memorandum on cooperation, and this week’s meeting in London was seen as an important “incremental step” towards restoring relations with the Russians.
But the timing of the attacks on Mr Keefe, coupled with continuing pressure to extradite the main suspects in the murder of Mr Litvinenko, a British citizen, provide an uncomfortable backdrop. On Saturday night Whitehall sources insisted that difficult issues, including the murder, would “not be left outside the room” at this week’s meeting.
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But MI6 was again accused last week of being at the centre of another anti-Russian conspiracy – this time in connection with Monday’s opening of the trial of Magnitsky.
He is charged with defrauding the Russian state, along with the British-based millionaire businessman Bill Browder, the head of Hermitage Capital Management, which employed Magnitsky. Mr Browder has declined to go to Moscow for the trial.
A widely viewed television documentary in Russia last week accused the two men of being part of an MI6 conspiracy to undermine the Russian government.
An investment fund auditor, Magnitsky said he had uncovered a £150 million tax fraud involving Russian government officials, but was then arrested himself on accusations of fraud.
He died in prison in 2009, having been denied visits from his family, forced into increasingly squalid cells, and ultimately contracting pancreatitis. Despite repeated requests, he was refused medical assistance and died, having been put in a straitjacket and showing signs of beatings. The case has become a rallying call for critics of Mr Putin’s regime, who accuse the state of a campaign of intimidation against political opponents.
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By Jason Lewis, Investigations Editor
9:00PM GMT 09 Mar 2013
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