Russia Expels 4 British Envoys

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 20, 2007

MOSCOW, July 19 -- Russia expelled four British diplomats on Thursday, retaliating three days after officials in London ordered four Russians out of the country in a dispute over a murder investigation.

The tit-for-tat expulsions stem from Moscow's refusal to extradite a Russian man accused of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian domestic intelligence officer, in London last November. That killing deeply unnerved many Londoners because the poison was the rare radioactive element polonium-210, later detected in other parts of the city.

It was unclear whether the dispute would escalate further. But Russian President Vladimir Putin predicted the two countries would "overcome this mini-crisis." In his first public comments on the matter, he said relations would "develop normally because both countries are interested in this."

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin announced his government's retaliation Thursday, telling reporters that "a note has been officially handed to the British ambassador that four officials of the British Embassy in Moscow have been declared personae non gratae." He said the diplomats, who were not identified, will have 10 days to leave Russia.

Kamynin also said that British officials would not be granted visas to visit Russia and that London's actions "make it impossible to develop anti-terrorist cooperation between Russia and the U.K." He provided no specifics about cooperation, and it was unclear whether existing contacts between the police and intelligence services of the two countries would be completely severed.

Alexander Golts, a defense analyst and journalist in Moscow, said in a telephone interview that in any case, "cooperation was very limited."

"Both sides complained that the exchange of information was not so full," he said. "I think Russia tried to find the most urgent and most painful point. Counterterrorism is very important for the West, especially Britain. But the response is mostly wording."

In her first comments on the dispute, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that Russia should extradite Andrei Lugovoy, the former KGB officer accused by Britain of murdering Litvinenko.

"This is an issue of rule of law to our minds, not an issue of politics," Rice said at a news conference in Portugal, where she was attending a conference on the Middle East. "It is a matter of Russia cooperating fully in what is simply an effort to solve what was a very terrible crime committed on British soil."

The European Union has expressed its "disappointment" at Russia's lack of cooperation.

British Ambassador Anthony Brenton was summoned Thursday to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, where he was handed several messages.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Brenton said he expressed Britain's "continuing disappointment at Russia's reaction so far to our request for the extradition of Mr. Lugovoy and our continuing hope that Russia will find a way to cooperate."

Russian officials say the country's constitution explicitly bars the extradition of Russian citizens. The officials have offered to try Lugovoy in Russia if they are presented with sufficient evidence to do so. The Russian prosecutor's office continues to conduct its own investigation into the death.

The Russian actions appear designed to retaliate for the British move but without dramatically escalating the confrontation. "As you can see, Moscow's steps are targeted, balanced and minimal," Kamynin said. "We were forced to take these steps given the deliberate decision in London to worsen relations with us."

Britain, however, had said that it would be inappropriate for Moscow to respond to its expulsion of the Russians. It remains to be seen if London will take any further action.

Tensions between the two countries have been escalating since Litvinenko's death. Lugovoy and some Russian officials have said the British secret services are recruiting Russians visiting London to spy on their home country. Exiled billionaire Boris Berezovsky, a friend of Litvinenko's, said this week that Scotland Yard foiled an attempt to assassinate him by a hit man who had traveled from Russia.

"There have been more spy scandals between Moscow and London than any other capitals since 1922. We have a bad tradition," Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, said in a telephone interview. "Unlike the Soviet times, the good news is that the international climate is better. We both have partners -- the European Union and the U.S. -- who are not interested in escalation, and hopefully these partners will act as honest brokers."

Correspondent Mary Jordan in London contributed to this report.

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