On the 55th anniversary of the Prague Spring, the head of British intelligence met Anne McElvoy of POLITICO, a highly experienced journalist report from behind the Iron Curtain – to talk about Russia, Wagner’s warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, China and artificial intelligence in espionage.
In the rare exclusive interview, Richard Moore has issued a thinly veiled recruiting appeal to Russians who have become disillusioned with their leadership as they assess President Vladimir Putin as being « under pressure » internally after a mercenary mutiny exposed his weakness. .
« Join us – our door is always open, » said Moore – known as ‘C’ within the agency – in a speech at a POLITICO event hosted by the British embassy in Prague.
The MI6 head, who took over the leadership of the agency in 2020 after a career in diplomacy, has repeatedly referred to Prague’s history as a center of resistance against Russian rule as a parallel to current times. While the city’s students led an uprising against the Soviet occupiers that was brutally put down by Russian tanks, the Czech Republic, long known as a playground for spies, is now a member of NATO and the EU, as well as a staunch supporter of Ukraine.
“When we thought about bringing me here, it seemed like a great place to talk about Ukraine in particular. The parallels are so strong, aren’t they?” he said. “This is the last European country to see Russian tanks cross its border and that’s where Ukraine is.”
Moore offered a positive assessment of the battlefield situation in Ukraine, noting that Kiev forces have made up more ground in the past month than the Russians have in a year. And he issued a warning to African leaders who rely on Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner PMC mercenary army, to keep them in power.
« If Russian mercenaries can betray Putin, who else could they betray? » he said in the speech, the only audience he intends to hold this year.
Moore’s remarks come as MI6 is ramping up its public awareness efforts. Founded under another name before World War I, MI6 – the British equivalent of the US CIA, while MI5 is more like the FBI – operated completely out of public view for many years. The British government only officially recognized its existence in 1994.
During those years in the shadows, a rich tradition has developed around the spy agency and its group of secret agents, thanks in large part to authors such as Graham Greene and John Le Carré and the iconic James Bond 007 character invented by Ian Fleming.
MI6 has modernized its image and now operates from a glittering headquarters on the banks of the Thames in London. But Moore said he embraced the mythology surrounding his office of him, even writing in green ink, in keeping with an age-old tradition.
Amid commentary on the global spy game, Moore showed off his playful cufflinks, which were shaped like Marmite jars and bore the words « love » and « hate » on both wrists. Always a diplomat, Moore explained to an international audience that Marmite was a condiment made from yeast extract that has a « very strong taste » and is either adored or loathed, even in Britain. Take this, James Bond!
Here are seven points from Moore’s interview with POLITICO in Prague.
1. Ukraine’s « hard work ».
With Russia invading for nearly 18 months, Kiev’s Western allies are paying close attention to the progress of a counter-offensive that began earlier this summer. Ukrainian commanders highlighted battlefield challenges, as deeply entrenched Russian troops have littered the front with many thousands of mines that are slowing Ukraine’s advance.
Kiev’s progress, which is taking place without strong air support, has led to criticism that Ukraine is advancing too slowly. But Moore hit a positive note.
“Well, it’s hard work and, you know, Ukrainian officials and military don’t back down. And the Russians had a chance to go to the defense[s] which are very difficult to overcome, » he said.
“But I return to the point that the Ukrainian commanders, in stark contrast to their Russian counterparts, want to preserve the lives of their troops and are therefore moving with due caution. They still recovered more territory in a month than the Russians managed to get in a year. »
2. Don’t « humiliate » Putin
Since the start of the war, some Western leaders, notably French President Emmanuel Macron, have expressed concern about the risk of « humiliating » Putin. Moore appeared to agree, saying the West’s goal was not to embarrass Russia or Putin himself.
« No one wants to humiliate Putin, much less anyone wants to humiliate the great Russian nation, » he said. « But the path to them is very clear: get all your troops out. »
He added: “Most conflicts end in some kind of negotiation. It is up to Ukraine to define the terms of peace, not us. Our job is to try to put them in the strongest possible position to negotiate from, from a position of strength, and that’s what we intend to do. »
3. Russian leader ‘under pressure’
Nearly a year and a half after Russia’s reinvasion of Ukraine and a month after the failed Prigozhin mutiny, Moore said it was impossible to determine what was going through Putin’s mind. But he has offered a stark assessment of his position within the Russian power structure.
“He’s clearly under pressure. You don’t have a group of mercenaries advancing along the highway towards Rostov and coming within 125 kilometers of Moscow unless you fully anticipated what was going to happen,” she said.
“I think he probably feels under pressure. Prigozhin was his creature, completely created by Putin, yet he turned against him,” Moore added. “He didn’t actually retaliate against Prigozhin. He made a deal to save his own skin using the good offices of the leader of Belarus.” .
4. Call all Russian deserters
Moore has issued an open call to Russians who feel disillusioned with their leader and the bloodshed in Ukraine, urging them to get in touch with the British security services.
« I invite them to do what others have already done over the past 18 months and join us, » he said in his prepared remarks. During her interview, she added: “The truth is that people keep coming to us, Anne, and of course they take risks by doing so. But we take care of the people who come to work with us and, of course, our successes are never known. »
5. China’s « huge » capabilities
Despite the intense focus on Russia, the spy chief stressed Britain’s main concern on the world stage today is China, which he described as inevitable.
« We now dedicate more resources to China than any other mission. » This reflects « China’s importance to the world » and the « crucial need » to understand the capabilities of the Chinese government, she said.
On China’s intelligence operations in the West, Moore said, « Like everything else with China, you have to look at its reach. » China’s capabilities are « huge and deployed overseas in large numbers, » he added.
6. Espionage in the age of artificial intelligence
With the rise of artificial intelligence, some critics have argued that AI will make human agents irrelevant. Moore strongly objected to this point, arguing that human intelligence remained crucial to doing what « machines cannot do », noting that MI6 was « experimenting like crazy » with AI.
“If artificial intelligence is taken in a direction beyond international coordination and developed for evil intent, this is highly dangerous. As we can already tell with the possibilities of generative AI, this will need to be handled very carefully,” she said.
7. Iran’s drone riot
Moore dropped a tantalizing hint of discord within Iran’s secretive regime. While Iran has been a key backer of Putin’s invasion, supplying drones that terrorized Ukrainian troops and cities, the MI6 chief said the supply of drones was causing discussions among Iranian leaders.
« Iran’s decision to supply Russia with suicide drones that inflict random destruction on Ukrainian cities has prompted internal quarrels at the highest level of the regime in Tehran, » he said in prepared remarks. « Iran has presumably chosen to earn money and probably receive some military know-how in exchange for its support for the Russians. »