Kremlin boots 4 British diplomats as fight about poisoned spy heats up
STARAYA TERIZMORGA, Russia -- Russia retaliated against Britain in an escalating diplomatic fight Thursday, but President Vladimir Putin sought to calm what he called a "mini-crisis" over his refusal to extradite a suspect in the murder of a Kremlin critic in London.
Expressing confidence the two nations would overcome their differences, Putin appeared intent on keeping the dispute over alleged Russian involvement in former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko's slaying from harming trade and investment ties.
He spoke after Russia announced it would send four British diplomats home in response to the expulsion of four Russian envoys from Britain because of the Kremlin's decision not to hand over suspect Andrei Lugovoi for trial.
While Putin tried to play down the fight, he also suggested it was up to Britain to back off in the confrontation.
"I think Russian-British relations will develop normally. On both the Russian side and the British side, we are interested in the development of these relations," he said. "But it is necessary to balance our actions with common sense, to respect the legal rights and interests of partners -- then everything will develop in the best way."
"I'm sure we will overcome this mini-crisis, too," Putin added.
He spoke in this village near the Volga River hours after British Ambassador Anthony Brenton was summoned to the Foreign Ministry's imposing Stalin-era tower in Moscow and told that four British diplomats would be kicked out in tit-for-tat retaliation for London's expulsion order.
Russia also won't issue new visas for visits by British officials, mirroring another British penalty imposed on Russian officials, and it will halt counterterrorism cooperation, ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said.
Calling the response "targeted, balanced and the minimum necessary," Kamynin said the government of new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown "made a conscious choice of worsening relations with our country."
Britain denounced the Russian moves and vowed to push for international backing in a dispute that has deepened the rift between Russia and the West.
"We think the action they have taken is completely unjustified and we will continue to take this matter forward with the international community over the next weeks," said Michael Ellam, Brown's spokesman.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quick to support Britain, urging Moscow to extradite Lugovoi, the suspect in the slaying of Litvinenko, whose harrowing death in London from radiation poisoning last fall captured worldwide attention.
"There was a terrible crime perpetrated on British soil. That crime needs to be investigated, and the perpetrators brought to justice and punished," Rice said in Portugal. "It is going to be very difficult to do that without the extradition of those who were requested by the British and without the full cooperation of Russia."
Lugovoi, who had met with Litvinenko in a London bar on the day that the Putin critic reported falling ill, is the only suspect named by Britain.
Britain announced it was expelling four Russian diplomats Monday after Russia formally rejected the request for Lugovoi's extradition, citing a constitutional ban on the extradition of its citizens. Putin had called the extradition request "stupidity."
The dispute has worsened relations already strained by Russia's opposition to the Iraq war, Britain's refusal to extradite exiled tycoon and Putin critic Boris Berezovsky on embezzlement and coup-plotting charges, and Moscow's allegation last year of spying by British diplomats.
But Putin's government seems to be treading softly to keep the dispute from spreading into profitable areas. Kamynin, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, stressed that the interest of business people and tourists would not be hurt by Russia's retaliatory measures.
British companies have some $12 billion invested in Russia, and Britain is a prime customer for Russia's oil, natural gas and precious metals -- industries whose exports fuel the Russian economic resurgence that underpins Putin's wide popularity at home.
"There are common interests here, and I think nobody wants to touch them," said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Experts suggested Russia's suspension of cooperation against terrorism was largely meant as a show, since Britain is on edge over recent terror plots.
"There is simply not much concrete cooperation on terrorism," Malashenko said.
The two nations are focused on different terror concerns, he said, and Russia would have "very little ability to help Britain, for instance, avert terrorist acts that have taken place or could take place."
Natalia Leshchenko, an analyst at the Global Insight think tank, told British Broadcasting Corp. television that Britain and Russia do cooperate in counterterrorism, but she also said the suspension was mainly meant to tarnish the new British government.
"The cooperation itself is there, and we can also say (its importance) can be exaggerated if needed to show that Gordon Brown acts against the British people. At least that's what they are saying to the Russian public at the moment," Leshchenko said.