VLADIMIR Putin, the Russian president, yesterday expelled four British diplomats but hinted at an amicable settlement to what he called the "mini-crisis" over the killing of a Russian dissident in London.
Mr Putin's apparent attempt to downplay the seriousness of the rift with London over the death of Alexander Litvinenko last night raised private hopes in the Foreign Office that a compromise could yet emerge.
The UK this week expelled four Russian envoys in protest at Moscow's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the man British prosecutors accuse of poisoning Mr Litvinenko in a London hotel in November.
The Russian response yesterday seemed to indicate a willingness to contain the row and avoid a fundamental deterioration in relations.
Last night, in a televised press conference, Mr Putin said: "I think Russian-British relations will develop normally. It is necessary to balance one's actions with commonsense, to respect the legal rights and interests of partners. I'm sure we will overcome this mini-crisis, too."
Speaking in London before Mr Putin's remarks, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said the Russian expulsion of the UK envoys was "unjustified" and expressed disappointment that Moscow had given no ground on Mr Lugovoi's extradition.
Privately, however, Foreign Office sources were pleased with the Russian response and Mr Putin's remarks.
MI6 OFFERED ME A JOB, SAYS LITVINENKO SUSPECT
THE man wanted in Britain for the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko last night claimed MI6 tried to recruit him as an agent.
Andrei Lugovoi, a former Russian intelligence agent turned "security consultant", told Channel 4 News in Moscow that British intelligence was hoping to use him to gather compromising material about Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
"For a year British special services tried actively and aggressively to recruit me," he said. "They wanted to use my company as cover so they could get British special services agents working on Russian territory."
He added: "They completely, directly, unambiguously [wanted] to collect kompromat on the president and his family."