UK spy chief warns of ‘no limits’ Russia, China partnership, but insists West has ‘advantages’

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MI6 Chief Richard Moore did not hold back when discussing Russia and China during a fireside chat at the Aspen Security Forum, going so far as to even reveal that the U.K. now considers China its “top priority” and that Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine culminated in “complete failure.” 

“Presidents Putin and Xi, when they met, they came up with this agreement … with the term ‘no limits,'” Moore said. “Now … that ‘no limits’ is a ringing phrase, isn’t it? That’s a ringing phrase, and I think it says, when President Xi says these things, he means them, and we ought to listen hard.”

Moore, in his first-ever on-camera interview outside the U.K., presented a complex picture of the international landscape, particularly regarding the challenges of remaining “upstream” of China as well as a number of blunt statements regarding Russia and its actions in Ukraine. 

Moore criticized China for “beating the Russian drum and selling” Putin’s narrative on Ukraine “without any sense of irony.” “They’re selling their snake oil around the world,” Moore said.

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He also raised the negative side of doing business with China, pointing to Sri Lanka, which made “really misplaced economic decisions” in trusting China and falling prey to its Belt and Road Initiative. The West, he argued, shows a greater willingness to work in an “independent and creative” environment.

Most startling, Moore labeled China as the U.K.’s top priority – ahead even of any counterterrorism efforts. 

MI6 Chief Richard Moore speaks at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, on Nov. 30, 2021, saying that Britain's intelligence agencies must open up to cooperation with the global tech sector if they are to counter the rising cyber threats from hostile states, criminals and terrorists.

MI6 Chief Richard Moore speaks at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, on Nov. 30, 2021, saying that Britain’s intelligence agencies must open up to cooperation with the global tech sector if they are to counter the rising cyber threats from hostile states, criminals and terrorists.
((Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images))

“We are putting more effort into China,” Moore said. “We now devote more effort to China than any other single subject.”

“So, for example, it just moved past counterterrorism in terms of our mission, and that feels like a very big moment – post-9/11, post-7/7 in London – but it reflects the seriousness of the mission for us,” he added. 

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The greatest challenge with China is dealing with an “opaque” system, especially after China crushed U.S. spy sources in 2010, killing or imprisoning at least 18 such operatives and setting the U.S. back “decades.”

“But I would just say that … we have this huge advantage that the Chinese don’t because we have friends – we have allies, we have an ability to work in a trusted way to try and take on this challenge.”  

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, June 5, 2019.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, June 5, 2019.
(REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool)

The U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand share intelligence in a system known as the Five Eyes Alliance. Moore argues that in addition to this alliance, which allows free movement of intelligence between the five nations, the U.S., U.K. and their partners also offer a “middle ground” for countries that China and Russia do not. 

“You know, there are a lot of countries out there that may not share our values,” he said. “They may not share our political systems, but they are a vital battleground for us as we seek to compete with the Chinese, and if we leave a vacuum in those places, the Chinese will fill it.”

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Moore outlined how he seeks to “forge a relationship” with the intelligence service of a given country that “might fall into that category” and try to find common ground. 

“I’m not leaving my values at the door,” he added, stressing that his values remain “critical” to his service. “I will find ways of finding a common ground and I think we’ve got to do that, and part of that is frankly not seeing this as some kind of set of a 1950s cowboy movie [where] the bad guys have black hats and we all have white hats.” 

A Ukrainian serviceman walks by a destroyed apartment building in Borodyanka, Ukraine, Wednesday, April 6, 2022.

A Ukrainian serviceman walks by a destroyed apartment building in Borodyanka, Ukraine, Wednesday, April 6, 2022.
(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

“It’s a messy, contested world out there, and we’ve got to be prepared.” 

One area in which this preparation came in handy was dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Moore once again highlighted the value of knowing ahead of the invasion what Putin intended to do, and how that led to numerous failures. 

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“We had the enormous privilege in the U.S. and U.K. intelligence services of knowing what [Putin’s] plan was, and he had three things he wanted,” Moore said. “One was to remove [President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy, second was to capture Kiev, and third was to sow disunity within the NATO alliance.”

“If you turn to those three briefly … I think that’s a fail, if you completely failed to capture Kyiv.” That, he said, means Russia suffered a “very, very bloody nose.”

He echoed estimates from CIA Director William Burns that Russia had lost some 15,000 troops – at least – during the invasion, saying it was a “conservative” estimate that would equal the same number of troops Russia lost in the 10-year Afghanistan operations in the 1980s. Like Burns, he also said Putin was not in poor health.

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He said Russia’s greatest failure of all resulted in NATO growing in strength – once again highlighting the value of cooperation between Western allies in order to achieve their goals. With Sweden and Finland joining the alliance, Moore believes NATO stands stronger than ever before. 

“I never thought I would see Sweden and Finland join [NATO],” he said. “Sweden’s just giving up 200 years of neutrality to do that. So on all of those, I think they count as epic fails.” 

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