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Britain has opened back channels with a Russian intelligence agency in a bid to offset actions by an increasingly unpredictable Vladimir Putin.
Intelligence sources say the hotline was established two months ago between MI6 officers and a “small group” of counterparts attached to Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service who share concerns about the Russian premier’s volatility.
The Russian officers are not spies, and the hotline is not being employed on a daily or even weekly basis, the sources added last night.
Rather, the aim is simply to give as much advance notice of any unorthodox actions aimed at the UK and Nato territories – including but not limited to the deploying of nuclear weapons.
Under the terms of the deal, only after a decision has been taken will Russian officers make contact.
Such is the Russian bureaucracy involved, however, that it could take as long as 24 hours before an order to fire nuclear-tipped missiles in a “first strike” scenario is actually carried out, potentially giving time for action to be taken.
The hotline has a number of safety systems with code words for individuals to ensure it is not compromised and has, sources say, “already been tested to the satisfaction of all parties.”
It is not the first time since 2015 that unorthodox connections of this type have been forged with Russia.
In January last year a separate hotline was established between MI6 – properly known as the Secret Intelligence Service – and senior Russian army officers when it was becoming clear that armoured Russian forces surrounding Ukraine may cross its border.
Like the small SVR group, that officer represented a faction of Army officers who were concerned about Putin’s plans.
“It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that such a line of communication should have been established – this sort of mechanism is why we have intelligence officers in embassies, whose role is to establish both official or unsanctioned relationships,” said former senior army intelligence officer Philip Ingram.
“These relationships are built up over years. They are semi-official. It isn’t the same as running agents. These aren’t spies. These are more informal liaisons, built around areas where mutual interests meet.
“In this case, this is about being able to give early warning should Russia go mad and there is a need to influence things without going through normal channels.”
News of the hotline emerges at a time of heightening paranoia for the Kremlin.
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Last week it was revealed that three scientists working on Russia’s cutting edge hypersonic missiles programmes – Anatoly Maslov, Alexander Shiplyuk and Valery Zvegintsev – had been arrested and were awaiting trial for high treason.
The threat of Russian nuclear weapons was discussed at the G7 summit in Hiroshima, which was destroyed 78 years ago by a US atomic bomb.
Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons was discussed at the G7 summit in Japan, where leaders of the world’s seven richest democracies – including nuclear-armed Britain, France and the US – expressed their “commitment to achieving a world without nuclear weapons” through a “realistic, pragmatic, and responsible approach”.
Meeting in Hiroshima, which a destroyed by a US atomic bomb 78 years ago, the group said that North Korea must completely abandon its nuclear bomb ambitions, “including any further nuclear tests or launches that use ballistic missile technology.”
Attention was also given to Iran, with the group adding: “We reiterate our clear determination that Iran must never develop a nuclear weapon.”
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