Britain calls Moscow's diplomat expulsion unjustified


Tensions between Britain and Russia took a further turn for the worse Thursday when Moscow announced a tit-for-tat expulsion of four British diplomats. a move immediately denounced as “unjustified” by London. Gas supply safe but future clouded by UK-Russia row. Putin says Russia, UK will overcome current diplomatic crisis.

The Cold War-style tensions were triggered by Moscow's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi to London as a suspect in the radioactive poisoning murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko last November. Adding to the tensions was an air space incident which the British Defence Ministry confirmed, with two Royal Air Force jets having been scrambled earlier in the week when two Russian planes had approached British air space. On Thursday, after London had already moved to expel four Russian diplomats, Moscow said it would deny entry visas to British officials and expel four British diplomats from the country.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said the move came in response to the expulsion on Monday of four Russian envoys from Britain. An official note was given to the British ambassador in Moscow in which the four British diplomats are termed as undesirable persons, news agency Interfax reported. The four must now leave the country within 10 days. Russia also on Thursday rejected European Union assertions that Moscow had not cooperated with British authorities in the Litvinenko case. Russia's EU envoy Vladimir Chizhov told Interfax that while British investigators were quickly given permission to travel to Russia as part of their probe, Russian authorities were prevented from entering Britain for some time.
Chizhov criticized a statement from the Portuguese presidency of the EU on Wednesday, in which Lisbon had expressed disappointment over the lack of cooperation, calling it an “uncomfortable surprise.” He also said the “European solidarity” against Russia on the matter could damage relations between Moscow and the 27-member bloc. The senior diplomat said the Lisbon statement was “noteworthy,” as London's position on the Lugovoi issue did not stand up to criticism, either from a constitutional or human-rights standpoint.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov in further comments on the Lugovoi case meanwhile said that the principle of innocence until guilt is proven should be observed until Russia had a chance to complete its own investigations. In London, Foreign Secretary David Miliband blasted as “completely unjustified” Moscow's move to expel four British diplomats. “We obviously believe that the decision to expel four embassy staff is completely unjustified and we will be doing everything to ensure that they are their families are properly looked after,” he said in a statement.
Miliband said the same number of Russian staff would be sent home from London as those British diplomats ordered out of Moscow. The new British Foreign Secretary also welcomed the support shown by other nations in London's quest to gain the extradition of Lugovoi, against whom there was a “significant body of evidence.” The remark came amid reports that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had called on Moscow to extradite Lugovoi. “We are much heartened that over the last 36 hours, across the international community - European countries, the EU as a whole and the United States - should have put out such positive statements about the need to defend the integrity of the British judicial system,” Miliband said.

Amid the diplomatic tensions reminiscent of the Cold War days between the West and the erstwhile Soviet Union, Britain's Defence Ministry confirmed an airspace incident which took place Tuesday. It said Royal Air Force jets were scrambled in the incident. “Two unidentified aircraft came towards British airspace. They turned round before there was an interception and before they entered British airspace,” a ministry spokesman said, while adding “there was nothing to suggest this was linked to any other issues.” [Two Norwegian F16 took off when the Russian bombers came close to the Norwegian zone in the Norwegian Sea on Tuesday. The Russian aircrafts never entered Norwegian air space, and the situation was not dramatic, John Inge Ogland from the Norwegian Defence said to daily Aftenposten. “These kind of things happen regularly. When foreign planes are operating near the Norwegian zone, we as a routine send up aircrafts to mark Norwegian territory,” Ogland said.. He stressed that the Russian aircrafts were not forced to change direction by the Norwegian planes, but that they themselves turned when they were outside the Norwegian region of North Trondelag.
RAF two fighter jets took off at alarm Tuesday to intercept two strategic bombers of Russia that deviated from their usual course of patrolling Norway's coast and headed for Britain, The Times reported Tuesday. But the Russians didn't violate the UK airspace that day. Two Tu-95 strategic bombers of Russia took off from their base on the Kola Peninsula to patrol the Norwegian coast but neared Britain's airspace in the region of Scotland. Two Tornado fighters from RAF’s Quick Reaction Alert were ordered to get off the ground in Yorkshire to oppose the Russians that had been already followed by two F16 fighters of Norway. But the Russians turned back before reaching Britain that day. Some analysts might see the incident as a deliberate act, initiated by Russian authorities to provoke the British government, following the recent tense relations between the two countries.]

Britain's political row with Moscow is unlikely to jeopardize Russian energy supplies to Europe but may hamper investments in Russia, analysts say.

This latest blow in a series of clashes has further soured an already strained relationship between the dominant supplier and its gas-hungry European customers. Analysts say Russia is too reliant on European gas money to cut supplies to Western Europe, as it did against Ukraine in a row over pricing two winters ago. But if the two parties do not settle their differences, future supplies could be in doubt. “I think things are going in a disastrously wrong direction... In the longer term it's going to have a very big impact,” Jonathan Stern, director of gas at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies said. "It's highly unlikely there will be any substantial increase in Russian gas supplies to Europe." Stern said there was little danger of supplies being cut this winter, but warned worsening relations could hamper future export pipeline projects to Europe.

China is growing rapidly and Russia is keen to supply its energy, prompting European concern. In spite of the rows, Moscow needs Europe more, said Robin Shepherd, senior fellow for Europe at foreign policy think-tank Chatham House. “The revenue that Russia earns from Britain and Western Europe is central to the country's economic success,” he said. “Europe can get by without Russia, except for energy.” He agreed the Kremlin could threaten oil and gas pipelines to other markets if relations with Europe do not improve, but its long-term strategic interests lie with the EU. “Despite these little spats that happen with Europe, I think they are aware that Western Europe is basically a reliable partner on a consumer basis,” he said. “I think that 20 years ahead China is potentially a very big headache for Russia in a way that Europe is not... Russia does not like, as a power, to be seen as the little brother.”

However bad relations might get, Western Europe's long-term supply deals should be safe because they are bound by international law that would land Russia's Gazprom in court facing multi-billion dollar claims if it does not deliver. “I expect commercial contracts to be shielded from any diplomatic disturbance,” said Claude Mandil, the director of the International Energy Agency, which advises the world's most industrialized countries on energy. Lingering bad air between Britain and Russia could make British companies, in particular, even more wary about investing in Russia after having their fingers burnt as the Kremlin's grip on energy resources tightens.

BP and Shell have both been pushed out of multi-billion dollar projects recently, with Gazprom taking control. British companies still keen on gaining access to Russia's energy wealth may find it even more difficult if the two countries do not settle their spat soon. “It may be more difficult for British companies in Russia to get new opportunities,” Stern said. (

Russia's president said he is convinced that Russia and the UK will overcome the current crisis in their relations, which took a turn for the worse Thursday when Russia expelled four British diplomats in a reciprocal move. “I think Russian-British relations will develop normally. I am convinced that we will cope with this mini-crisis too,” Vladimir Putin told journalists after hosting a Finno-Ugric culture meeting with the leaders of Hungary and Finland in the Russian Republic of Mordovia. Putin said that both Russia and the UK are interested in developing bilateral relations, “but any actions should be matched with common sense. The legal rights and interests of partners should be respected, and then everything will take the best course,” he said. (


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