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The Guardian reports that Russia said on Wednesday that Britain's "groundless" accusations forced Moscow to respond to the expulsion in kind:
" 'The British side took an unfriendly step the other day, having groundlessly declared one of our colleagues in our embassy in London persona non grata,' Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement.
'We were forced to take an adequate corresponding measure,' the statement on the foreign ministry's website said.
It did not say what the measure was, but London has said Russia requested the removal of a British diplomat on 16 December and that both diplomats had now been withdrawn."
The British tabloid The Sun reports that the Russian diplomat's expulsion is connected to sleeper agent concerns. The Sun writes that an unnamed intelligence official said that "The worry was individuals who should not be coming here would be. It raised worries about potential sleeper agents taking long-term advantage of their presence here."
However, The Guardian reported Tuesday that the Russian diplomat, who was a known intelligence officer, had broken "one of the rules of the game" by "having 'crossed the line' between what is regarded as acceptable and unacceptable behaviour of an intelligence officer." The Guardian adds that the diplomat's breach was via personal contact, rather than by accessing government information or property.
At least one Russian commentator has dismissed the tit-for-tat expulsions as "routine" and "dull." RIA Novosti's political commentator Andrei Fedyashin writes that the tiff is "hardly a scandal," noting that "the game was played with traditional, impersonal diplomatic politeness""
"Diplomats are expelled for a variety of reasons. It’s not exactly difficult to identify those officials that work for intelligence agencies. Sometimes it is a purely political move. In this case, British newspapers reported that the expelled Russian diplomat had overstepped the mark, crossing the line between what is regarded acceptable and unacceptable behavior for an intelligence officer. The collection of any information of interest to intelligence agencies is considered acceptable behavior.
All spies working undercover as diplomats do roughly the same job as regular diplomats and journalists in every country. They gather information. The only difference is that they put it into different baskets and it is processed differently. That’s it. There is nothing sinister about it. ...
One-off expulsions never produce any meaningful results, but they are inevitable when the rules of the game are broken. In this case, the expulsion is a message to the other side to “cool off.” Russia’s retaliation carries the same message."
Still, Reuters notes that the diplomatic spat comes as Russian officials had been seeking a reset in Russo-British relations. The Russian statement regarding the spat expressed regret that Britain's expulsion of the diplomat came just as "the first encouraging trends in our relations with Britain had appeared." Moscow had in recent months expressed hope that the arrival of Britain's new Conservative-Liberal government would end tensions between the two governments.
Diplomacy between the Britain and Russia has been strained in recent years, starting with the 2006 murder of dissident Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London by polonium poisoning. Britain in 2007 accused a Russian, Andrei Lugovoi, of the murder and demanded Russia extradite him to face charges. Moscow refused, leading to a diplomatic crisis and a round of diplomatic expulsions. The Litvinenko murder has resurfaced in the media this week after The New York Times published a report about several diplomatic cables from the WikiLeaks cache that concerned the murder.
Relations further soured in 2008, when Moscow demanded the closing of the Russian offices of the British Council, the British government's cultural arm. Most recently, Katia Zatuliveter, a Russian working as an aide to a British member of Parliament, was arrested earlier this month by British officials on accusations of being a spy, reports BBC News. Ms. Zatuliveter, who has been released on bail, denied the charges and has said she would fight any attempts to deport her.