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Britain, Russia in 'controlled' crisis: paper

Britain and Russia have kept room for maneuvering amid the diplomatic wrangling over the poisoning case of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, although ties between the two countries may be bruised by the dispute.

Britain has asked Russia to hand over Andrei Lugovoi, who British prosecutors have charged with murdering Litvinenko, a request Russia has rejected citing a constitutional ban. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday rapped a British call for Russia to amend its constitution to extradite Lugovoi, describing it as “a vestige of colonial thinking.” The West, however, has backed Britain in its demand, with the Portuguese presidency of the European Union (EU) and French President Nicolas Sarkozy offering support.

While Britain and Russia may be apparently taking a hard-line, “both countries are at the same time keeping considerable room for maneuvering” to prevent further escalation of the crisis, a signed article in the People's Daily, a leading Chinese news paper, said on Thursday. Although Britain has announced its decision to expel four Russian diplomats, but has stopped short of saying specifically who are to be expelled. And Britain took no further steps after Russia took reciprocal action to expel British diplomats and stop issuing visas to British nationals three days after the British expulsion. British officials termed the Russian decision as “unjust,” but stressed Britain valued its ties with Russia.

British Ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton said in an interview with the Interfax news agency: “We have said a number of times - indeed, the Foreign Secretary made clear on Monday - that we want strong relations with Russia across a range of issues.” Putin, commenting on the dispute, said he believed the two countries would go through this “temporary crisis.” The mixed message showcases the adjustment in Britain's foreign policy and the pursuit of their respective interests, the newspaper article said. British foreign policy is being fine-tuned since Gordon Brown took office as new prime minister. His main job is to maintain the special relationship with the United States and work more closely with continental European countries, the article said.

While a departure from being too US-leaning may help Brown, continental European countries still harbor misgivings about Britain's stance. The prospect for Britain's cooperation with the United States and other European countries in international affairs, therefore, seems unclear now, the article said. But the three sides are united in dealings with Russia. Most of the European countries do not expect a dramatic warming in relations due to a lack of mutual political trust before the presidential elections in Russia next March, it said.

Economic ties and cooperation in energy and security have propelled ties between Britain and Russia. Oil giants BP and Royal Dutch Shell have invested billions of US dollars in Russia. Bilateral trade amounted to $15 billion last year, marking a 50% jump over the previous year. And Britain sees a more urgent need for international security cooperation, with Russia included, following a series of terrorist attacks in the country, the article added. (people.com.cn)