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Daily Telegraph: Things can only get worse with Mr Putin

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 17/07/2007

The expulsion of four middle-ranking diplomats is a minimal response to Russia’s refusal to extradite the chief suspect in the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. The poisoning in London last November of the former KGB agent, who had been granted British citizenship, will have reminded many of Cold War skulduggery. But, in its prodigal leaking of radioactive polonium-210 and its hideous effect on the victim, it put even the 1978 umbrella murder of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov into the shade.

In May, the Director of Public Prosecutions requested the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, another former KGB agent, to face trial for Mr Litvinenko’s murder. Vladimir Putin refused, dismissing the request as “stupid” and deriding Britain as “a haven for terrorists and criminals”. That has left the new Brown administration no option but to restrict official Russian operations in this country.

The Government can be under no illusion that it is in for a rough ride. With his refusal to cooperate over Iran and Kosovo, his threats to target nuclear warheads on Europe and his suspension of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, Mr Putin has made it clear that his foreign policy is based on anti-Westernism. That attitude plays well at home as he seeks to secure his legacy after next May, when he is due to step down.

But there is also a personal side to the quarrel with Britain. Mr Litvinenko sought political asylum after accusing the KGB’s domestic successor, the Federal Security Service, of plotting to murder Boris Berezovsky, the London-based former oligarch, who also has British citizenship. Mr Berezovsky, who has been charged in Moscow with plotting a coup and embezzlement, is Mr Putin’s bête noire. In addition, Britain has given asylum to the Chechen separatist Ahmed Zakayev, another issue that touches a raw nerve in the Kremlin.

Judging from Mr Putin’s plans for restoring national greatness, he could be expected to distinguish between political confrontation with Britain (tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats, further restrictions on British Council activities) and damaging a flourishing economic relationship. Britain is the largest foreign investor in Russia, thanks largely to the presence of Shell and BP in the hydrocarbons sector, the key to realising presidential ambitions. However, given the sensitivity of the Berezovksy and Chechen factors, the Government should not be surprised if sanctions are extended to British companies in Russia.

In standing up to the Kremlin, Britain must secure the support of its partners in the G7 and European Union. The current quarrel may directly affect only Foreign Office and British Council officials. But it could well spread into other areas. Whitehall should be planning a potential response at all levels, even to denying Russia membership of the World Trade Organisation, with which Mr Putin hopes to crown his second term. Yesterday, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, took a necessary first step. What flows from it could severely test his resilience.
 
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2007/07/17/dl1701.xml

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