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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Britain Expels 4 Diplomats Over Lugovoi

ReutersAndrei Lugovoi
A diplomatic crisis erupted Monday after the British government said it would expel four Russian diplomats over Moscow's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi to face trial for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.

"The Russian government has failed to register either how seriously we treat this case or the seriousness of the issues involved, despite lobbying at the highest level and clear explanations of our need for a satisfactory response," British Foreign Minister David Miliband said in a speech to Parliament.

Russia, which is expected to respond in kind, criticized the announcement Monday evening, saying it would have the "most serious consequences" for relations with Britain.

The British government has demanded the extradition of Lugovoi, a millionaire businessman and former security services officer, but last week Russian prosecutors announced they would not hand him over. The Constitution prohibits the handing over of Russian citizens to another state.

Along with the expulsion of the diplomats, Miliband said Britain would review the extent of its cooperation with Russia on a number of issues, including the easing of visa procedures for Russians visiting Britain and those for granting visas to government officials.

In his speech, Miliband provided a detailed account of the allegations against Lugovoi, quoting the Crown Prosecutor Service's charge that he was responsible for adding polonium-210 to Litvinenko's tea during a meeting in a London restaurant. Litvinenko, a former FSB officer who later became a staunch critic of President Vladimir Putin, died from radiation poisoning in London on Nov. 23, in what Miliband described as a "horrifying and lingering" death that put hundreds of other people at risk.

Miliband called Russia's response "extremely disappointing," saying expulsions were the "appropriate response."

Russian officials reacted swiftly to condemn Britain's decision.

"London's position is immoral," Mikhail Kamynin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in comments carried on national television news. "Moreover, in London they should clearly realize that such provocative actions masterminded by the British authorities will not go without an answer, and cannot but entail the most serious consequences for Russian-British relations."

"You can act this way toward a banana republic, but Russia is not a banana republic," said Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee on Rossia channel. He called Britain's request for Russia to override the Constitution "arrogant."

He also said he believed Britain was in violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations by expelling the diplomats, Interfax reported.

Kosachyov said diplomats could be sent packing for reasons connected with their professional duties, but "never, as far as I can remember, has a state expelled foreign diplomats as a form of punishment," Kosachyov said."

Russia was expected to answer with the expulsion of a similar number of diplomats, in line with standard practice in diplomatic disputes of this type, but experts warned that tensions could further escalate between the countries.

"We should expect the Russians to expel a few British diplomats," said Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center, "But the question is whether this will be the end of it. This has become a vicious circle ... every next move is harder than the previous one."

Some Russian politicians also warned that this might only be the beginning.

"I can't rule out that this is just the beginning of a major provocation," said Communist State Duma Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin. "A certain psychosis is being created about Russia."

He said the Lugovoi case would soon be used as the basis for protests against Russia hosting the Winter Olympic Games in 2014 and for canceling passenger flights between the countries.

"The only thing saving Russia is that Western, and especially Eastern, Europe needs our power resources," he said.

Valentin Zorin, a professor at the United States and Canada Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said Britain could not do any real harm to Russia, as it was far more powerful than Britain. He said Russia would probably not take any retaliatory actions, but added that relations between the two countries would "not enjoy their best period" and it would take Britain a long time to mend them.

A British Embassy spokesman said Monday evening that any Russian retaliation over the British measures would be "wholly unjustified."

The spokesman, who did not give his name, in accordance with embassy policy, said the measures concerning applications for British visas would only affect those submitted by the Russian government. He was unable to say exactly what measures would be taken in these cases.

All other visa applications by Russian citizens would be considered "on their merits," he said.

Press service representatives at the Russian Embassy in London could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon. A spokeswoman at the embassy said by phone that she had been ordered by authorized press representatives not to put through any calls to the service Monday evening.

The four expelled diplomats are likely to be intelligence officers, the BBC reported. Both Britain and Russia have complained in recent years of growing spy activity. The two countries have a long history of spy scandals and tit-for-tat expulsions. The low point in bilateral relations came in 1971, when Britain expelled 105 Soviet Embassy employees.

Relations between London and Moscow had been on a downhill slope even before Litvinenko's poisoning.

British Ambassador Anthony Brenton complained last year that he was being harassed by the pro-Putin Nashi youth group. The British Council, the British government's cultural arm abroad, has been investigated by the Interior Ministry and had run-ins with the tax authorities.

In turn, Russia has been infuriated by Britain's refusal to extradite exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky and Chechen leader Akhmed Zakayev, both of whom have political asylum in Britain.

The countries have also had a number of spy disputes in recent years. In January 2006, the FSB accused four British Embassy employees of spying using transmitters concealed inside fake rocks. In August, a Moscow military court sentenced retired intelligence agency Colonel Sergei Skripal to 13 years in prison for spying for Britain.

Staff Writers Natalya Krainova and Carl Schreck contributed to this report.