Luke Harding in Moscow and Mark Tran
Tuesday July 17, 2007
Russia today accused Britain of seeking a political confrontation but stopped short of an immediate tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats over the Litvinenko affair.Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Alexander Grushko, said Moscow would “soon” inform the government of its counter-measures, but said the response would take into account the interests of “ordinary British citizens and businessmen”.
Despite what appeared to be an effort to steer the crisis away from UK-Russia economic ties, Mr Grushko used the brief news conference to deliver some jabs at Britain, warning that the diplomatic crisis could prevent the countries working together on international issues.
“What is happening makes it impossible for British and Russian agencies to cooperate on security,” he said.
“It looks as though we are being punished for preserving our own constitution [...] It is not an invitation to cooperation.”
The Russian ambassador to London, Yury Fedotov, said Russia did not retaliate today as expected because “we’re serious people, we’re not rushing”.
Speaking to reporters outside Westminster, Mr Fedotov said Andrei Lugovoi, the former intelligence official whom Britain wants extradited, might face trial in Russia and that such an offer had been made by Moscow.
At the same time the Kremlin also sketched out its probable strategy for toughing out the crisis, hinting that it would seek to divide Mr Brown’s government from its EU allies and partners – a technique Moscow has successfully employed in the past.
Mr Grushko effectively accused Britain of attempting to hijack the EU and said it was exploiting the murder of Alexander Litvinenko to achieve its own “unilateralist goals”.
“We hope that common sense will prevail in the European Union and its members will not yield to more attempts to turn relations between Russia and the EU into a kind of unique tool … which have nothing in common with real partnership interests between the EU and Russia.”
Moscow has been strikingly successful in dividing Europe over energy, making separate pipeline deals with Germany and the Czech Republic, and last week granting French energy company Total a 25% stake in developing a massive gas field in the Arctic.
The Russian resources minister, Yuri Trutnev, earlier today signalled Moscow’s intention to shelter Russia’s economic ties to Britain from the diplomatic storm.
The foreign secretary, David Miliband, yesterday told the Commons that Britain’s expulsion of the four diplomats was “proportional and it is clear at whom it is aimed”.
The diplomats are officers with one of the successor organisations to the KGB, a signal that Britain suspects Russian intelligence agencies had a hand in Litvinenko’s murder.
Russian officials said today that Russia’s ambassador to the UK, Yury Fedotov, was summoned yesterday to the foreign office and given the names of the four diplomats.
The British authorities had given them 10 days to leave Britain, the source added. He refused to name them, but said they occupied middle ranking positions.
In Moscow, Russia’s pro-Kremlin press laid the blame for the crisis on London “and the hypocritical” government of Gordon Brown.
On its front page the newspaper Isvestiya said that Britain had “declared war on Russia” next to an unflattering photo of an open-mouthed Mr Brown attempting an overambitious smash with a tennis racket.
“The language of ultimatums, threats and demarches will hardly help British authorities in their dialogue with Russia,” the paper said.
It added: “The actions of Gordon Brown and his newly formed cabinet are nothing but a policy of double standards.”
In an interview with the paper Mr Lugovoi – the man sought for extradition by the UK – dismissed claims that he poisoned Alexander Litvinenko at London’s Millennium hotel on November 1.
Over the weekend waiter Norberto Andrade told the Sunday Telegraph that Mr Lugovoi had slipped radioactive polonium into Litvinenko’s tea “turning the teapot yellow and gooey”.
But Mr Lugovoi told the paper: “It’s laughable. [Mr Andrade's] claims are either a lie or stupidity. We did not look conspicuous and left after about 15 minutes. No matter how experienced the waiter might have been, it’s strange that he should remember us for so long,”
Most ordinary Russians seemed unmoved by the crisis.
“This isn’t a big crisis, it’s a medium-sized one,” Natasha Trusova, a 35-year-old newspaper courier told the Guardian. “Generally Russians think that the UK is a peaceful country, while the US is an aggressive one.”
Others expressed sympathy with the Kremlin’s hardline stance.
“All intelligence services go round killing traitors. It’s natural,” Andrei Sakharov, 31, a project manager, said.