Britain's New Tough Line With Russia

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Andy Rain / EPA

The Russian Embassy in London.

Four Russian diplomats packed their bags and left London this week. They were expelled, said Britain's Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, as a response to "Russia's failure to cooperate" with London's efforts to extradite Andrei Lugovoi to stand trial for the poisoning last year of Alexander Litvinenko, his former KGB colleague. "The heinous crime of murder does require justice," said Miliband. But the Russian media scoffed that this was an asymmetrical kind of justice, citing the British rebuff of Moscow's bids to extradite exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky and the Chechen envoy Akmed Zakayev. Instead, Moscow sees what a foreign ministry spokesman described on Monday as "a flare-up in Russo-phobic sentiments in British society and political circles."

Russo-phobic sentiments were certainly splashed all over Britain's pugnacious tabloids, which never miss an opportunity to rattle a few sabers. "We have learned in two World Wars not to appease bullies," opined Britain's largest mass market daily, The Sun. "This is the biggest test for European nerve since the Cold War."

Well, maybe. But the expulsion of the Russians is a largely symbolic gesture that nobody expects will break the impasse. Russia is considering its response, and Britain is quietly lobbying its European Union partners for support. They, like the British government itself, are conflicted. Increasingly dependent on Russian oil and gas supplies, and painfully aware of Moscow's influence in tricky international negotiations on Kosovo and Iran — as well as needing Russian help in combating terrorism — European countries have preferred to avoid open confrontation with Russia.

President Vladimir Putin, for his part, appears, if anything, to be spoiling for a fight. Moscow has tangled with the Europeans and the U.S. on a growing range of issues, and last weekend it announced Russia's withdrawal from the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, signed at the end of the Cold War in 1990. The apparent deterioration in relations with the West has raised the specter of the bad old days, when tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats were almost commonplace.

Yet cut through the thickets of martial hyperbole, and you'll find Russian bear and British bulldog are still sharing a large patch of common ground. "Russo-phobia" is a myth, says Katinka Barysch, the Deputy Director of London-based think tank the Centre for European Reform. Instead, she detects in Britain a kind of "Putin-phobia, a certain queasiness. It's more directed to the Russian state, not the Russian people, in the same way perhaps that Britons are very capable of making a distinction of disliking President Bush but not the American people."

And while their governments may be at loggerheads, the business communities of Russia and the U.K. are closely entwined. "In former days, Communists from Western Europe went to worship the master in the Kremlin. Now it's capitalists from West Europe who go thinking that there's money to be made. So there's been a lot of pressure on governments to go soft on Russia because it's seen as an important new economic player," says Denis MacShane, Britain's Europe Minister from 2002 to 2005. That pressure cuts both ways, says Barysch. "Russia still gets foreign direct investment from the U.K. and there's 400,000 Russians living in the U.K., and this is the Russian elite. They're sending kids to school here. Their wives go shopping here. The U.K. has an interest in them being here because they bring in a lot of money, and the Russians have an interest because they want to be here, with all these Russian companies listed on the London Stock Exchange."

Natasha Chouvaeva, who edits the Russian-London Courier, Britain's first Russian-language newspaper, founded in 1994, says that the Russian expatriate community, politically diverse and often deeply divided, is also united in its desire to avoid an escalation. "Nobody wants for visas to be restricted, or for there to be any impact on business," she says. "Confrontation is not an option." Neither, she adds, is "to look the other way. What is in the interests of the Russian community is that [Litvenenko's murder] is solved. If we do look away, how many others will die in this way? Anyone can be the next."

With so many vested interests in play, looking away still holds attractions for some Western diplomats, but former Europe Minister MacShane believes Russia "has already been cut enough slack."

"Russia is the new bully on the European block. It's trying to control European foreign policy in the Balkans. It is harassing and intimidating nations that were formerly in the Soviet imperium. It thinks its agents can come and murder, in atrocious circumstances, a British citizen in London, and it plays divide and rule trying to influence, at times to buy, political support in key European capitals," he says. "This is not the civilized behavior of a the rule of law democracy, and I'm glad that London, speaking on behalf of many in Europe, has decided to say enough is enough."

— With reporting by Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow