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Russia-Britain Relations Sour After Expulsion of Diplomats

July 19, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: That spat between Russia and Britain. We begin with a report by Julian Manyon of Independent Television News.

JULIAN MANYON, ITV News Correspondent: In mid-afternoon, the British ambassador, Anthony Brenton, boarded his Range Rover and drove the short distance to the Stalin-era tower that houses the Russian foreign ministry. When he emerged 15 minutes later, he said little. But soon, a Russian spokesman announced the tit-for-tat expulsion of four British diplomats and an end to cooperation with Britain in the war against terror.

MIKHAIL KAMYNIN, Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Russia (through translator): Russia has not been seeking conflicts with Britain. The position taken by their new Labour government is based on anything but common sense.

JULIAN MANYON: In London, the new foreign secretary, David Miliband, delivered a firm reply.

DAVID MILIBAND, Foreign Secretary, United Kingdom: Good afternoon. The decision to expel four embassy staff is completely unjustified, and we will be doing everything to ensure that they and their families are properly looked after.

JULIAN MANYON: Russia has once again made it clear that Andrei Lugovoi will not be extradited to Britain.

Is the Russian government trying to escalate the situation?

ANDREI ZOLOTOV, Journalist: No, I don’t think so. If they expel more diplomats, then we will see it as escalating. I mean, and this is just simply kind of what they have to do by the rules of the game into which they’ve been drawn.

JULIAN MANYON: The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, seems determined to keep the crisis at arm’s length. Today, he attended a folk festival in the Russian countryside. Accusations against him continue to circulate in the West, but Putin clearly believes that he can ride out the storm.

JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez takes it from there.

Dispute started with a tea cup

Mary Jordan
The Washington Post
Moscow has said, no, we're not cooperating. And our constitution, by the way, forbids us to give over one of our citizens for trial. So there's where the deadlock is. Britain wants him to stand trial for murder, and Russia says no.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the unfolding diplomatic conflict, we're joined by Mary Jordan, correspondent for the Washington Post in London.

And, Mary, when did this all get started? When did the British realize that a former Russian intelligence agent, named Alexander Litvinenko, had had something terrible done to him in Britain?

MARY JORDAN, Washington Post Correspondent: Well, it all started, most amazingly, with a tea cup. Litvinenko was poisoned with this rare isotope, polonium 210, in November. And since then, the British government has been trying to figure out who did this.

After an extensive investigation, after flying over to Moscow and talking to people there, they said they want this other man, Lugovoi, to come here and stand trial for murder. They say it's very -- they seem to be very confident that they have a lot of evidence against him. After all, the weapon was radioactive. So there was a radioactive trail following Lugovoi as he went around London and sat beside him at a beautiful hotel in downtown London.

Then he flew back to Moscow. And since then, Moscow has said, no, we're not cooperating. And our constitution, by the way, forbids us to give over one of our citizens for trial. So there's where the deadlock is. Britain wants him to stand trial for murder, and Russia says no.

RAY SUAREZ: When Alexander Litvinenko was dying, he fingered Andrei Lugovoi himself. Before this, were the British aware that a former KGB agent was moving in and out of Britain, Andrei Lugovoi?

MARY JORDAN: No, this has exposed all kinds of things. I mean, the whole thing is extremely hard to believe. The latest news now is not only in November did you have a former KGB agent who had become a British citizen being poisoned in a London hotel, but now we're hearing that another critic of Putin, a billionaire named Boris Berezovsky, that a hit man came from Russia to shoot him dead.

And I think the reason now that we're hearing this tit-for-tat, "Your diplomats have to get kicked out of our country," this kind of rhetoric that's rising, the reason is, I think people are worried that more people could get killed here in London.

Denial of involvement in death

Mary Jordan
The Washington Post
They're saying, "OK, you're going to play this game? You Britons started this. You're the ones who first started expelling diplomats. And by the way, you know, this is not helping your interests."

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Andrei Lugovoi has denied any involvement in Alexander Litvinenko's death, but no one has assumed in all the coverage that he would have decided to do this on his own, anyway. What has the Russian government had to say, both about the death of their former agent, and the implication of someone who's living in Russia?

MARY JORDAN: Well, first of all, Russia has said the whole thing is ridiculous to say that Putin or the government or anybody in authority wanted this man dead. They said, "Well, who gains? Russia doesn't gain. This has smeared our image." And they have completely denied it.

I think what's angering the British authorities is that they say this was an outrageous murder, in fact, that potentially exposed hundreds of people to radiation here. There was a bit of panic here in November. You remember hundreds of people were calling the Health Service saying, "I was in that hotel. I was in that restaurant." And they were going to get urine tests and blood tests to see if they had been contaminated.

They just want what they say is cooperation. They're not only angry that Russia is not giving up this man for trial, but they say that they're blocking the investigation. When the British investigators went over to Moscow for it, for instance, they really didn't give them a full coverage for Lugovoi. So when he sat down, the Russians sat down there and asked the questions. They wouldn't even let the British investigators directly question people they wanted to in this investigation.

RAY SUAREZ: OK, so we've got the British requesting this man to be delivered for trial; the Russians say no. The British expel some Russians; the Russians expel some British diplomats. But now Russia's been talking about damage to cooperation over counterterrorism. What's that about?

MARY JORDAN: Well, I think that it's really what hurts here. I mean, right now, this is the hot-button issue. This country is on alert for all kinds of terrorism. And they're saying, "OK, you're going to play this game? You Britons started this. You're the ones who first started expelling diplomats. And by the way, you know, this is not helping your interests. If you want our cooperation, you have to play nicely with us."

Russians agree with Putin

Mary Jordan
The Washington Post
But from where I sit, here in London, people are outraged. They feel that Putin is kind of a Darth Vader, who you criticize him, he's going to get you.

RAY SUAREZ: Haven't the Russians also asked over the years for various people living in Britain to be delivered to Russia for trial?

MARY JORDAN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, in Russia, by the way, the Russians completely agree with Putin on this. They say their constitution forbids this man from being handed over. Why is Britain being so pushy? We don't care about these critics.

But from where I sit, here in London, people are outraged. They feel that Putin is kind of a Darth Vader, who you criticize him, he's going to get you. He's going to send his either rogue agents or agents working for him out, and they're willing to poison you or shoot you. And there are a lot of people in -- a lot of Russians in this town.

I mean, the joke is that, when you see a bodyguard at a fancy restaurant in London, either a member of the royal family's inside or a rich Russian. Increasingly, they call this Londonstan. There are a lot of Russians living here, and a lot of them are critics of Putin.

RAY SUAREZ: So what's Britain's next move?

MARY JORDAN: Well, either the rhetoric's going to calm down, and people will stop this, and it will cool down for a little while.

I think what people are really waiting to see is if we're going to see anymore of this activity. This latest thing we've mentioned, where the police now believe a hit man was sent here to kill a second critic, I think that much depends now on if anymore critics of Putin get killed here.

RAY SUAREZ: Mary Jordan, thanks for joining us.