Six months to the day after Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko died from polonium poisoning, the contamination is spreading far beyond the initial target to pollute relations between Russia and the West in general, and Britain in particular.
Britain's decision Tuesday to try to prosecute an ex-KGB agent for Mr. Litvinenko's murder last November adds a new layer of frost to diplomatic exchanges that are already at their iciest since the cold war, warn politicians and experts in London and Moscow.
British prosecutors said they wanted to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, a Russian businessman who met Mr. Litvinenko on the day he fell ill, and prosecute him for murder. Mr. Lugovoi, a former KGB agent, has repeatedly insisted he is innocent.
Top prosecutor Sir Ken Macdonald called it an "extraordinarily grave crime," while Downing Street said that despite the need for cordial relations with Russia, the rule of law had to be respected, "and we will not in any way shy away from trying to ensure that that happens in a case such as this."
No one expects Russia to surrender Lugovoi, though. The Kremlin has barely concealed its contempt for the British process, insisting Russia had nothing to do with the murder and cooperating only grudgingly with the British investigation. Yesterday, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor general's office said Russian citizens cannot by law be handed over to foreign countries. Period.
At face value, the consideration is this: Was Litvinenko's poisoning the work of a state-sponsored plot or the wretched result of a private grievance?
But underneath the mysterious twists reminiscent of a spy novel lurks a broad agenda of international issues, from energy security to Iran to NATO expansion, that are threatening to rupture relations between Moscow and the West. In short, analysts say, it is not just that the Litvinenko affair is poisoning relations, but that poisoned relations will make it difficult to clear up the Litvinenko affair.
Europe is aghast at a power that is seen to be bullying its neighbors with threats to cut off oil and gas and worse. Russia complains it is misunderstood and repeats that it doesn't really need the West anyway.
"It's a symptom rather than a cause of worsening relations," says Margot Light, a Russia expert and emeritus professor at the London School of Economics. "There are deep-seated problems that lie beneath this."
She notes that relations started to sour when Britain granted asylum to two men wanted for prosecution in Russia: the former Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky and Akhmad Zakayev, a one-time Chechen rebel.
"The Russians are convinced that the West, and Britain in particular, is guilty of double standards, because we won't extradite the people they consider terrorists," she adds. "But there is no British court that would return Berezovsky, because there is no British court that would be convinced he would get a fair trial."
"The real problems," adds James Nixey, a Russia expert at the Chatham House think tank, "are in the newfound Sovietness of Russian foreign policy, a boorishness and confidence they have found based on a stronger economy that makes them feel more self-sufficient."
Litvinenko was a stern critic of the new Russia, a former KGB agent turned exile who argued that President Vladimir Putin blew up his own people to detonate a new war with Chechnya that would redouble his popularity. Weeks before he died, he began investigating the October 2006 murder of another Kremlin critic, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. On his deathbed, he issued a statement directly implicating Putin in his murder.
Mr. Berezovsky told Echo Moscow radio that "charging Lugovoi means to charge Putin himself, since he is up to the hilt in these accusations."
Alex Goldfarb, a friend of Litvinenko's who is about to publish a book on his murder – "The Death of a Dissident" – says that Lugovoi, a businessman who Mr. Goldfarb claims is worth $30 million, was doing the Kremlin's bidding.
British police say the Russian left a trail of polonium in his wake at various points in London and Moscow, including a soccer stadium and a British Airways aircraft.
"He had no motive and no reason to kill, and he had no access to polonium. So there are some very powerful and resourceful people behind this," says Goldfarb. "He was acting on behalf of the Russian state, and they made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Every Russia businessman knows he is totally dependent on the Kremlin."
Goldfarb says he expects Britain to feel a backlash from Tuesday's move. "The British have proved in this case that for them principles are more important than their interests," he says, predicting that Moscow would reciprocate by "leaning on" British commercial and other interests in Russia.
Russian analysts, meanwhile, note that the general public is distinctly uninterested in the affairs of exiles in London and generally swallows the Kremlin line that it was a big Boris Berezovsky plot.
"Russia has consistently claimed that the Litvinenko murder was carried out by rogue Russian oligarchs, namely Boris Berezovsky, and therefore never liked the British investigation, which went in a different direction," says Dmitry Suslov of the independent Council on Foreign and Defence Policy.
Fred Weir contributed from Moscow.