British Council Closure Called Political in Diplomatic Letters

LONDON -- The Foreign Ministry's decision to close the British Council's regional offices was politically motivated, Britain's ambassador to Moscow said in one of several letters released Friday by the Foreign Office.

The letters, written by British Ambassador Tony Brenton and Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov, provide a rare look at the diplomatic back-and-forth between Russia and Britain, whose relationship has deteriorated since the poisoning death of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko and the subsequent tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats.

In a letter dated Dec. 7, Titov said Moscow had decided to order the British Council -- a nongovernmental organization that acts as the cultural arm of the British Embassy -- to close its branches in the cities of Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg by Jan. 1 as a "logical consequence" of the expulsion of Russian diplomats from London.

In his response, dated Dec. 12, Brenton told Titov: "Your letter makes clear ... that Russia's ultimatum relates to an entirely separate matter and that Russia's motives are political rather than legal." He said European-Russian cultural cooperation would suffer if the Russians refused to back down.

The release of the letters was an unusual move; Britain usually insists that such diplomatic correspondence is private. It was not clear why the Foreign Office chose to make the correspondence public -- a spokeswoman reached late Friday said only that the letters had been vetted for release -- but the move suggests the depth of British irritation with the Russian government.