Escalating from murder mystery into international cause célèbre, 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.
"The Kremlin is inclined to see this whole affair as some sort of tricky maneuver with the involvement of British intelligence," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading foreign-policy journal.
Tensions between Britain and Russia have been spiraling downward since the Kremlin refused to turn over Lugovoi to Britain in May, citing Russia's Constitution.
Workers of the British Council, the embassy's cultural arm in Russia, and British ambassador Anthony Brenton have reported harassment from members of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi in recent weeks. In addition, a Russian subsidiary of the British oil major BP was squeezed out of a major holding, the Kovytka gas field in Siberia, after tense negotiations with the Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom last month.
"It's quite possible that British businesses in Russia will suffer badly from this," says Yevgeny Yasin, head of the independent Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "With all the passions that are being stirred up, it's certainly not going to do economic relations any good."
Experts say that British-funded NGOs in Russia might also be targeted if the mood worsens. "There is a propaganda war beginning, and Russia will feel the need to offer strong retaliation," says Mr. Lukyanov. "It's likely that British NGOs will find themselves facing all sorts of legal and financial problems."
Russia criticizes double standard
Meanwhile, Russia is emphasizing a perceived double standard on Britain's part. The Russian government newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta, on Tuesday published a list of 21 names it said were alleged criminals that Moscow has tried over the past six years to extradite from Britain without success. Among them is Berezovsky, whose in absentia trial on charges of fraud and embezzlement opened in Moscow last week.
In an interview with the Sunday Times last weekend, Russian ambassador to Britain Yury Fedotov accused British authorities of whipping up an atmosphere of "Russophobia" in the country. He alleged that all Russians are treated as if they were "mafia criminals" and often denied service in London restaurants, hotels, and shops. "I can cite examples where Russians were beaten by youngsters in London," Mr. Fedotov said. "Tourists, visitors, businessmen. They were severely beaten and the police did not even open an investigation."