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The Times: Moscow Retaliates: Russia is doing itself serious damage

July 20, 2007

Moscow’s decision to expel four British diplomats and to suspend cooperation on counter-terrorism will come as no surprise. Russia had already announced that it would retaliate for the expulsions and visa restrictions announced by David Miliband, who was responding to the refusal to extradite the main suspect in the Litvinenko case. There were fears that an angry Kremlin would go farther, hitting out at the British Council (which has already suffered harassment), British business people and broader international cooperation. The revelation of a bizarre plot by a Russian hitman to murdera Russian exile in London last month made Moscow’s reaction particularly unpredictable.

Either embarrassment or self-interest has, in the end, moderated the Kremlin response. It has drawn back from a pointless escalation. The Russian spokesman yesterday described the measures as “targeted, balanced and the minimum necessary” and in some circles there was immediate relief: visitors, executives and cultural impresarios have not been singled out, and surging Anglo-Russian trade can continue its impressive growth.

Yet the Russian measures are, nevertheless, destructive. Antiterrorist cooperation has been confined largely to Russia’s preoccupation: the fight against Islamist extremism in Chechnya. But terrorism today is as globalised as any market, and extremists across the Middle East and Central Asia watch and learn from each other, and pool their resources and intelligence. A Russian refusal to share information about terrorist activities in Iraq could cost British and American lives. It may, admittedly, be distasteful for British intelligence officials to cooperate with counterparts in an organisation that may have had a hand in planning or sanctioning the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. But in the fight against those plotting global terrorism, help is needed from all quarters.

Nor should business people imagine that Moscow’s retaliation leaves them unaffected. Russia remains a hierarchical society, where decisions are taken at the top and bureaucrats instinctively take their tone and cue from the Kremlin. How ready will local administrations, trade officials or even prominent businessmen be to conclude deals with British companies at a time when London is so clearly out of favour? How much extra pressure will be put on Shell and BP, companies already feeling the heat of nationalist rhetoric? Amid such deals as B&Q’s recent £250 million expansion in Russia, British exports are now at a record high. But the chilly atmosphere might persuade some Russians in future to look instead to France and Germany.

If both sides are to limit the fallout of the Litvinenko affair, there must be a clear understanding in Moscow of the anger in Britain at what has happened. The mysterious arrest and deportation of a Russian apparently sent to kill Boris Berezovsky comes straight from a spy film; but if that is the reality of attitudes emanating from officials intent on silencing President Putin’s critics, it shows despicable contempt for the uproar caused by the Litvinenko murder. Mr Berezovsky is a contentious figure, but whether the attempt to murder him came from officials or business rivals, it is clear that Mr Putin must do much more to crack down on such lawlessness. Britain still wants to do business with Russia; Moscow must show that, despite the expulsions, it is ready to do business with the modern world.

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