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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

4 British Diplomats Shown the Door

ReutersBritish Ambassador Anthony Brenton leaving the Foreign Ministry on Thursday after a meeting with ministry officials, just prior to Kamynin's announcement.
Moscow announced Thursday that it was expelling four British diplomats as the dispute in British-Russian relations over the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi showed no signs of abating.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin told reporters at a news conference that Russia would also cut off cooperation on fighting terrorism and stop issuing visas to British officials until London explains its own restrictions on visas for Russian officials.

"Four British Embassy staff in Moscow are now persona non grata, and they must leave the territory of the Russian Federation within 10 days," Kamynin said.

"The position taken by Britain's new Labour government toward Russia is not based on common sense or the pragmatism and respect of law that are so typical of real Britons," Kamynin added.

Britain immediately blasted the move.

"We obviously believe that the decision ... is completely unjustified and we will be doing everything to ensure that [the diplomats] and their families are properly looked after," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said about an hour after Kamynin spoke.

The comments were echoed in a statement issued later by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office.

President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, described the diplomatic difficulties as a "mini-crisis" on Thursday, and said he was sure the countries would work through it, Interfax reported.

"It is necessary to balance your actions with common sense, to respect the legal rights and interests of your partners," he said. "Then everything develops in the proper way."

But the United States joined the European Union, which Wednesday appealed to Russia to provide "urgent" cooperation, in backing the British position. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a news conference in Lisbon that Russia should honor the extradition request, Reuters reported.

"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," Rice said.

On Monday, Britain announced the expulsion of four Russian diplomats in a protest over Moscow's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, whom London has charged with the November killing of Alexander Litvinenko.

Britain also tightened visa procedures for Russian officials, bringing them into line with those already faced by London when applying for visas for its officials, a British Foreign Office spokeswoman said Thursday.

Russia went a step further, implementing a blanket ban on visas issued to British officials "until [Britain's] new procedure is explained," Kamynin said. He added that Russian officials would not request British visas until specifics were provided.

Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, said it was difficult to tell whether Moscow's visa ban constituted an escalation because it was announced as a temporary measure while it clears up Britain's position.

The diplomatic standoff began when Russia refused a request to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the former Federal Guard Service officer whom Britain has charged with the murder of Litvinenko. Britain called the refusal "unacceptable," and expelled the diplomats, warning that any retaliation would be "wholly unjustifiable."

Putin called the request "stupidity" because the Constitution forbids the extradition of citizens.

Litvinenko, a fierce Kremlin critic, died of radiation poisoning Nov. 23, three weeks after meeting Lugovoi at a London hotel. From his deathbed, he accused Putin of organizing his murder.

Duma deputies and analysts described the sanctions as predictable, and said tensions in the standoff were likely to escalate further.

State Duma Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin, who is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said after Kamynin's announcement that "the English should have seen it coming."

"It is Russia's expected reaction to the anti-Russian campaign on the part of the English," Ilyukhin said.

He added that Britain was better positioned in the conflict because it had closer relations with "important international partners."

"Russia has argued with all of its neighbors, so it is on its own," Ilyukhin said. "I ask you: Is this not the first step toward a second Cold War?"

While the reciprocal diplomat expulsions may have consequences, Russia's promise to cease cooperation on counterterrorism is meaningless, security analyst Andrei Soldatov said.

"There is nothing to lose," Soldatov said. "There is no sensitive information changing hands."

At worst, Soldatov said, it will lead to the cancellation of occasional and not particularly useful conferences where officials discuss methods to combat terrorism.

Duma Deputy Alexander Lebedev said Russia needed to prove its innocence in the matter, rather than engage in diplomatic squabbles.

"Russia's attitude in the whole story is rather a strange one," Lebedev said, adding that Moscow's stance seemed to be "we know nothing and we will do nothing to prove that we are innocent."

But a letter to the editor from Russia's ambassador in The Times of London on Thursday did counter the claims of Kremlin involvement in Litvinenko's murder.

"It is preposterous to assert that the killing of Alexander Litvinenko 'appears to have the clear backing, if not the active assistance, of the Russian government,'" Ambassador Yury Fedotov wrote in response to an article the newspaper published Tuesday.

Fedotov said there was nothing sinister in Russia's refusal to hand over Lugovoi, and reaffirmed Russia's offer to put him on trial at home if British authorities provided sufficient evidence.

Russia's expulsion announcement came a day after self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky called a news conference in London to announce that British police had foiled a plot to kill him. He said Putin was responsible for the plot.

British police subsequently issued a statement saying a man was arrested June 21 and handed over to immigration officials two days later before they deported him.

British media reported Thursday that the would-be killer was Russian, and that he entered Britain with a child to disguise the nature of his visit. The man was kept under surveillance by police, and ultimately detained and questioned, The Guardian reported.

Due to the absence of evidence -- the man had tried to acquire a gun but failed -- no charges were filed. After his visa was confiscated, he was deported and banned from entering Britain for 10 years, the newspaper said.