Russia in 2006 accused British diplomats of using communications equipment… (Rossiya Television )
Reporting from London — Calling the espionage episode "embarrassing," a former British government official has admitted that a fake rock discovered by the Russian security service in a Moscow park in 2006 concealed a communications device planted by British spies.
"They had us bang to rights," Jonathan Powell, the chief of staff to former Prime Minister Tony Blair, says in a BBC documentary, using a British expression for being caught red-handed. "Clearly, they had known about it for some time and had been saving it up for a political purpose."
The multi-part documentary, "Putin, Russia and the West," scheduled to begin airing Thursday, includes Powell saying, "The spy rock was embarrassing."
Russian TV video of men handling the rock was widely broadcast at the time, along with video showing it being taken apart to reveal the delicate communications mechanism inside.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin then ordered a crackdown on several foreign-funded organizations, saying they were a front for Western government intervention in Russia's internal affairs. A Russian-British diplomatic row followed.
Tony Brenton, British ambassador to Moscow at the time, said in a BBC radio interview Thursday that the rock episode was "a considerable headache."
"It was unfortunate that one of the people involved was also dealing with our relations with Russian nongovernmental organizations and therefore the Russians were able to use the rock incident to launch accusations against the support we were giving to Russian nongovernmental organizations," he said.
Brenton said British-Russian relations were deteriorating and the incident "led us down the route which led us to the [Alexander] Litvinenko murder … to attacks on me personally" and other issues.
In November 2006, Litvinenko, a former Russian security service officer turned investigative journalist, died in a London hospital of radiation poisoning. His reporting had targeted corruption in the Russian government. In a deathbed statement, he accused Putin of being involved in his poisoning.
Stobart is a news assistant in The Times' London bureau.