Russian officials Monday accused four British diplomats of spying in an incident reminiscent of a Cold War-era James Bond movie, saying the alleged agents used short-range communications equipment hidden in fake rocks to exchange information with Russian sources.
The Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor agency to the Soviet KGB, charged that one diplomat, Second Secretary Marc Doe of the British Embassy's political section, also channeled money from his government to prominent Russian human rights groups.
The allegations come after strong international criticism of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin this month for signing a law that imposes strict conditions on nongovernmental organizations in Russia and limits their foreign funding. The measure was widely seen as an attempt to tighten the Kremlin's control over society and limit the influence of critics in the wake of uprisings in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in recent years.
FSB spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko told the RIA Novosti news agency that Russian intelligence had confiscated a device installed in a fake rock and that British intelligence had retrieved a similar device spotted by the Russians. A Russian accused of having contacts with the alleged British agents was detained, and confessed to espionage, Ignatchenko said.
The charges were made a day after state-run RTR television aired video it said showed British agents repeatedly approaching a fake stone and eventually carrying it away. The television program alleged that the diplomats and their Russian agents used hand-held computers to upload and download information to one another via the equipment hidden in the fake stones.
Ignatchenko said the hidden communications devices could be accessed from a distance of up to 80 feet and that transferring information required only a second or two.
The British Foreign Office said it was "concerned and surprised at these allegations." The statement focused on defending British engagement with Russian nongovernmental organizations.
"We reject any allegation of improper conduct in our dealings with Russian NGOs," the ministry said. "It is well known that the U.K. government has financially supported projects implemented by Russian NGOs in the field of human rights and civil society. All our assistance is given openly and aims to support the development of a healthy civil society in Russia."
The statement did not address the spying allegations, and the British Embassy press office declined to comment further.
Leaders of NGOs named in the Russian television program characterized the allegation that spies were helping to fund their organizations as a move to damage Kremlin critics.
"What the government wants is to close down civil society in this country. And that means they have to close down us -- noncommercial NGOs -- which remain the last bastion of the Russian civil society not controlled by the government," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a rights organization.
"This is just the first attack," she added. "They will not come and close us down tomorrow. There will be other attacks. They will wait until the world community and world media stop making a fuss about this, and then they will close us down."
Alexeyeva said that between 2000 and 2004 her organization had received grants openly from the British Embassy but Doe, the accused diplomat, had not handled the paperwork.
Andrei Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation, a Moscow-based group that promotes political and economic reform, said such allegations would be used to increase pressure on NGOs.
"The authorities badly needed to quickly find and demonstrate visible proof of justification for the law on NGOs, which was recently passed in an atmosphere of ... heated public debate," Kortunov said.
"Mr. Doe didn't directly sign grant decisions for us, but I think he must have signed some technical papers like some bank transfers. If it is true that he is a British intelligence agent, which still needs to be proven, it is very bad for us," he said.
Nikolai Zakharov, an FSB spokesman, said the agency had documentary proof that Doe was involved in providing funding for several NGOs.
"Naturally a question arises, why was an established intelligence agent passing over money to NGOs?" Zakharov said. "There is on the one hand cynicism and on the other hand shortsightedness of the British special services because in such a way they themselves compromise the very institution of NGOs in the country.
"In principle," he added, "special services usually don't do things like that."
Times staff writers John Daniszewski in London and Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.