LONDON — Russian opposition figure Vladimir L. Ashurkov breathed a sigh of relief when he fled Moscow for London in 2014. After months of being followed by the Kremlin’s intelligence agents to meetings, culminating in a televised raid of his apartment, he finally let his guard down, disappearing into the elegant, polyglot streets of Kensington.
Six months passed before he realized he was still being followed.
An old friend returned from a trip to Russia with unnerving news: In Moscow, security officials had asked detailed questions about a private conversation he had with Ashurkov in a London cafe. As he built his life in London, Ashurkov learned to look for Russian agents reflexively — men in dark suits sitting alone at émigré gatherings, dinner-party acquaintances rumored to be informants.
“You can’t do much about it,” he said. “Even after you escape from Moscow to London, you know they have long hands.”
Russia now has more intelligence agents deployed in London than at the height of the Cold War, former British intelligence officials have said. They serve a variety of functions, including building contacts among British politicians. But the most important task is to keep an eye on the hundreds of heavyweight Russians — those aligned with President Vladimir Putin, and those arrayed against him — who have built lives in Britain, attracted by its property market and banking system.
The poisoning last week of Sergei V. Skripal, a retired Russian double agent, and his daughter has put pressure on the British government to rein them in.
British authorities once devoted abundant resources to tracking the movement of Soviet agents here. But in recent years terrorist threats have become the clear priority, and MI5 has fewer resources to keep pace with Russia’s expanding operations,said John Bayliss, who retired from the Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s electronic intelligence agency, in 2010 and now lectures on security threats.
“I think it’s sort of accepted that there are more spies in London now than there were at the height of the Cold War,” he said. “In the Cold War, it was quite difficult for Russians to move around the country, they were restricted outside London. But now they’ve pretty much got free movement, they can go anywhere. We haven’t got enough people to follow everybody all the time.”
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