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The UK and Russian diplomatic stand off.

There seems to be some heat in the relationship between Russia and the UK. The basis for the disagreement is the consequences that flow from the murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko. The British have concluded that Andrei Lugovoi was responsible and wish to see him extradited in order to stand trial on the charge of murder. Russia has refused to allow his extradition and offered a trial in Moscow instead. In July the expulsion of Russian and then British diplomats seems to have increased the conflict. What is going on? What sort of crisis is this?

The UK was one of the first major countries to welcome Putin into the international arena. The Russian-UK relationship was put on a good footing with the UK emerging as an important trading partner and potential ally. Blair welcomed Putin and cooperated with him politically by supporting the efforts made to restore stability and prosperity to Russia. Gordon Brown, under pressure to show how his government differs from that of Tony Blair, has decided to take a tougher line: Russia ought to be encouraged to behave in more acceptable ways internationally and especially when it comes to the issue of murder and extradition.

According to the political and economic analyst, Roland Nash, the issue is not really about Lugovoi. Given that the British Courts have not agreed to the extradition to Russia of Berezovsky (the Russian tycoon who fell out of favor with Putin and who was given political asylum in the UK) ), a political decision in Moscow (where extradition is essentially a political rather than a legal decision) to extradite Lugovoi was always unlikely. The issue is really about the way in which Russia is asserting its presence in Europe and the rest of the world. Nash, who has worked as a consultant to the Russian government and who knows the economic scene very well, argues that Russian methods with respect to its interests in eastern Europe and central Asia may be harsh but from the Russian point of view, they work. Russia is now using energy (oil and natural gas) as the basis for protecting its interests. It is essentially a question of the kind on international rules that apply. The energy-deficient European Union is struggling to develop an effective energy policy to deal with its potential vulnerability. It is also not in Britain’s self-interest to let the situation with Russia deteriorate. The UK is the second largest foreign investor in the country.

Is this, then, a ‘crisis’? The UK Ambassador to Russia, the highly-experienced Tony Brenton, refuses to call the tit-for-tat expulsions a ‘crisis’, pointing to the many areas in which Russia and the UK are in cooperation, including the desire to cooperate over the threat of international terrorism. He insists on the seriousness of what happened to Litvinenko and the risk to which others were put by the possibility of radiation contamination. The expulsions have taken place and there seems to be no further public action for the time being. Some European countries support Britain’s stand but opinion on how to deal with the specific issues involved are divided. Putin has called the series of events a ‘temporary crisis’ but his anti-western and anti-democratic rhetoric is undoubtedly fraught with dangers both for the west and for Russia.

The clash is clearly one of ideology, even if not of the old cold-war variety. The UK values democracy and the rule of law and considers the murder and it surrounding circumstances to be a serious matter. Russia cannot understand why a country would threaten relations over a single individual (Lugovoi). At the same time, both sides will wish to maintain their economic interests. The current diplomatic situation could be described as one of ‘stalemate’. Perhaps the last word on this should be left to the People’s Daily (China). It referred to the crisis as a ‘controlled’ crisis. Both countries have, in its judgment, left themselves room to maneuver on the particular issues, and on how they are played out.