DCSIMG

UK-Russian relations hit 20-year low as four 'spies' kicked out over radiation assassination

Key quote

"When a murder takes place, when a number of innocent civilians were put at risk ... when an independent prosecuting authority makes it absolutely clear what is in the interest of justice and there is no forthcoming co-operation, then action has to be taken." - GORDON BROWN

Story in full BRITAIN'S relations with Russia yesterday sank to their lowest point since the Cold War as the Foreign Office expelled four Russian diplomats from London over the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.

Moscow last night called the British move "immoral" and "provocative" and said it will formally retaliate today over the combative new stance from Gordon Brown's government, which marks a significant change in approach from that of Tony Blair.

Mr Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer turned critic of president Vladimir Putin, was poisoned in a central London hotel last year.

British prosecutors say that Andrei Lugovoi, another former Russian spy, carried out the killing, and have sought his extradition, but Russia has repeatedly refused to co-operate.

Speaking in Berlin last night, Mr Brown said he wanted to have a "constructive" relationship with Moscow. But he added: "When a murder takes place, when a number of innocent civilians were put at risk ... when an independent prosecuting authority makes it absolutely clear what is in the interest of justice and there is no forthcoming co-operation, then action has to be taken."

Officials in Moscow last night warned that the move would badly damage ties between the nations.

Mikhail Kamynin, a foreign ministry spokesman, said: "They should understand well in London that the provocative actions conceived by the British authorities will not go unanswered and cannot fail to produce the most serious consequences for Russian-British relations as a whole."

He claimed the British moves "show that the results of this investigation were predictable from the very beginning and have always had a political character".

Mr Brown spoke hours after David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, had announced a package of measures calculated to punish and embarrass Mr Putin's regime.

Calling the Russians' behaviour "deeply disappointing", he told MPs Britain was also suspending a fast-track visa process for Russian government officials coming to Britain, and talks on streamlining the entry process for ordinary Russians.

Britain will also press for a European Union response to Russia's refusal to hand over Mr Lugovoi.

The Foreign Office refused to name the Russian officials being expelled. But it is believed that they will be some of the 30 or so Russian intelligence agents MI5 believes are active in the UK.

According to the Security Service, Russian espionage activity in Britain has not diminished since the Cold War, with Russians seeking both political and economic secrets.

Many believe the Russian state must have been complicit in Mr Litvinenko's murder. He was poisoned with polonium-210, a radioactive agent only produced in nuclear power stations.

The incident spread contamination across several sites in London. "His murder put hundreds of others, residents and visitors, at risk of radiation contamination," Mr Miliband said.

Russia has repeatedly refused to extradite Mr Lugovoi, saying the Russian constitution prevents it. Mr Miliband said that argument was open to legal challenge.

Despite talk that Mr Lugovoi could stand trial either in a third country or in Russia under UK law, the minister was adamant that the only "appropriate venue for the trial is London".

Mr Lugovoi has denied any wrongdoing, and last night accused the UK government of playing politics.

"From the first day, this scandal had a political subtext," he told Channel 4 News.

But Alexander Litvinenko's widow Marina said she was "very grateful" for the actions of the British government and was "proud to be a UK citizen".

The Litvinenko case is just one of a number of simmering rows between Russia and the West.

At the weekend, Mr Putin also confirmed that Russia was pulling out of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, a post-Cold War agreement meant to curb military activity in eastern Europe.

In the Commons, the government's tactics were backed by MPs from all sides. William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, supported "both the tone and the substance" of the government's response.

Michael Moore, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, said: "Moscow's lack of progress on human rights and democracy and its increasingly intransigent approach to international relations are serious causes for concern."

Throwing out diplomats was once a staple of East-West relations, a common way for the two sides to swipe at each other within safe limits. But in the more finely nuanced era of post-Cold War foreign policy, expulsions are a diplomatic weapon of last resort, meant to signal extreme displeasure and the failure of negotiations.

The last time Britain expelled Russians from the embassy in London was 1996, in retaliation for Moscow throwing out four UK diplomats it accused of spying for MI6.

Even last January's row over a bungled MI6 operation in Moscow involving a radio transmitter hidden in a rock did not end in diplomatic expulsions.

Mr Miliband's approach to the case is a clear departure from that adopted by Mr Blair's government.

He was a staunch supporter of Mr Putin, and even as relations deteriorated this year, he refused to condone direct action against Russia, instead warning that international investment in the country would dry up unless Moscow changed its behaviour.

But with Russia's oil and gas deposits being of increasing strategic and financial value, most western investors have been willing to endure tougher treatment from Moscow in the hope of commercial reward.

This has persuaded Mr Brown and Mr Miliband that a stronger message was required over the Litvinenko case.

However the government is aware that yesterday's move will unsettle British businesses. Mr Miliband will today meet the heads of major UK firms doing business in Russia.

POINTS OF CONFLICT

TIT-FOR-TAT diplomatic expulsions were a regular event during the Cold War, but the last time Britain expelled Russian envoys was in 1996.

That row centred on Russian allegations that the head of the MI6 station in Moscow tried to recruit Platon Obukhov, a Russian diplomat. He was arrested and Moscow expelled nine British diplomats it said were MI6 officers. Britain retaliated by expelling four Russians from London.

Other irritants between Britain and Russia include:

• BORIS BEREZOVSKY: Moscow resents London's granting refugee status to the outspoken Kremlin critic and tycoon. Britain has repeatedly rejected requests to extradite him on criminal charges. Berezovsky, who has lived in London since 2000, says the charges were invented to silence him.

AKHMED ZAKAYEV: Russia blames Britain for granting asylum to several Chechen rebels, most notably to Zakayev. Moscow says London's refusal to hand him over betrays double standards in dealing with the terrorist threat.

• OIL AND GAS: BP last month had to sell its stake in the Siberian Kovykta gasfield to state-controlled Gazprom at a knock-down price. The deal, part of Kremlin efforts to tighten its grip on oil and gas resources, raised concerns in the West about the safety of its own energy supplies.

Putin taps anxiety at home over western intentions

ANALYSIS

KEVIN O'FLYNN

British-Russian relations have sunk to a new low. How and if they will recover is another question?

As Vladimir Putin, the president, heads towards the end of his term in office, the hope, you might think, would be that a new leader could inject some common sense into relations.

In reality, Britain will have to deal with Mr Putin for a long time yet. He has said he will have some role past 2008 and at present the two most likely future presidents are Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, both protgs of Mr Putin. The plan is for Mr Putin to somehow remain in control - maybe as prime minister - or behind the scenes, with perhaps a return lined up for 2012, say experts such as Masha Lipman from the Carnegie Centre in Moscow.

The tensions between the two countries have been aggravated partly by the fact that Russia is in the long run-up to the parliamentary elections in December and the presidential elections in March, and nationalist rhetoric is an easy vote-winner. But there is also a general change amongst the elite.

It is not only British-Russian relations that have suffered. Russia is showing itself more strident in all its foreign policy, challenging the United States over plans to plant missile defence systems in what Russia considers its back yard.

The root of all the posturing is the 1990s. They cast a long shadow on Russian politics, on Russians and on Mr Putin himself. It was then they saw their country diminished. There is still a very strong feeling that the West wants to see Russia weak.

The revival under Mr Putin has pitched at that feeling and is succeeding. Britain is now a dastardly if often rather slapdash enemy, with Bertie Wooster spies who hide surveillance equipment in rocks and courts that allow Russia's enemies - Boris Berezovsky and Akhmed Zakaev - to live in luxury in London.

It seems unlikely that Britain will become a most favoured nation soon but there is a large degree of affection still for Britain in Russia, and hopefully there is only so much screeching on Russian television that people can take before their eyes glaze over.

• Kevin O'Flynn works for the Moscow Times.

 
 
 

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