Diplomatic Crisis over Poisoned Russian Spy

Article excerpt

Escalating from murder mystery into international cause celebre, the scandal surrounding ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko's fatal poisoning exploded this week into a full cold war-style diplomatic crisis between Russia and Britain, overshadowing all other aspects of an increasingly troubled relationship.

British Foreign Secretary David Milliband said Monday that four Russian diplomats will be expelled as a demonstration of how seriously London takes the Kremlin's refusal to hand over Andrei Lugovoi, the chief suspect in Mr. Litvinenko's death last November, to stand trial in Britain.

"Given the importance of this issue and Russia's failure to cooperate to find a solution, we need an appropriate response," Mr. Milliband said. "Our aims are clear: First, to advance our judicial process; second to bring home to the Russian government the consequences of their failure to cooperate; and third, to emphasize our commitment to promoting the safety of British citizens and visitors."

On Tuesday, Russia denounced Britain's move as "an attempt to punish us for adhering to our own Constitution," which forbids extraditions, and said it put the two countries on a direct path to confrontation. Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Grushko promised a carefully targeted and proportionate response "in the near future," which experts speculate could extend to British-linked businesses and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia.

"A matter that was originally in the juridical sphere is now thoroughly politicized," says Alexei Gromyko, head of the Center for British Studies, an official Moscow think tank. "There is a danger that, due to these events, we may see some spread of negative emotions toward [Britain] within Russia."

Fresh allegations against Lugovoi

On Monday, Milliband added fresh details of the allegations against Mr. Lugovoi, saying that British police have strong evidence that Lugovoi sprayed a deadly dose of polonium-210 into Litvinenko's tea during a Nov. 1 meeting in the Pine Bar, in downtown London. In addition, British ambassador Anthony Brenton warned that Britain may restrict issuance of visas to Russian officials.

Russia, which portrays itself as the victim of British machinations, sees the hand of Britain's MI6 intelligence agency and exiled anti-Kremlin tycoon Boris Berezovsky behind London's growing hostility.

In a May press conference, which many experts believe may have been scripted by Russia's FSB security service, Lugovoi protested his innocence and claimed that Litvinenko and Litvinenko's main sponsor, Mr. Berezovsky, were both agents with Britain's MI6 intelligence squad, working actively against Russia. Last month the FBS opened an official probe into the alleged subversive activities of MI6 and publicly introduced a Russian citizen, Vyachslav Zharko, who told Russian media that he'd turned himself into the FSB after being "recruited" by British spies sent by Berezovsky. …

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