- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2007

MOSCOW — Russia said yesterday it will expel four British diplomats and suspend counterterrorism cooperation with London, the latest move in a mounting confrontation over the radiation poisoning death of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was certain both nations would overcome what he called “a mini-crisis.” A spokesman for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the Russian move “completely unjustified.”

“It’s necessary to balance one’s actions with common sense, to respect the legal rights and interests of partners — then everything will develop in the best way,” the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Mr. Putin as saying. “I’m sure we will overcome this mini-crisis, too.”

Britain had announced Monday the expulsion of four Russian diplomats and restrictions on visas issued to Russian government officials after Moscow refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, accused of killing Mr. Litvinenko in London in November.

The dispute marks a new post-Soviet low in relations between Moscow and London, which had already been troubled by Russia’s opposition to the war in Iraq, Britain’s refusal to extradite exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky to face embezzlement charges, and by Kremlin claims last year of spying by British diplomats.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin announced the expulsions after summoning British Ambassador Anthony Brenton to the ministry and informing him.

Mr. Kamynin described Russia’s response as “targeted, balanced and the minimum necessary.” He contended that Russia was forced to respond, saying Britain had made a “conscious choice of worsening relations with our country.”

Mr. Brown’s spokesman Michael Ellam said Britain viewed Russia’s action as “completely unjustified, and we will continue to take this matter forward with the international community over the next weeks.”

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband expressed disappointment.

“We obviously believe that 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,” he said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Moscow to heed British demands and extradite Mr. Lugovoi — the first time America’s senior diplomat has weighed in on the dispute.

“This is an issue of rule of law to our minds, not an issue of politics,” Miss Rice said at a press conference in Portugal, where she was attending a conference on Middle East peace.

Russia says such extraditions are prohibited by its constitution and characterized Britain’s demand as an attempt to interfere in Moscow’s internal affairs.

Mr. Litvinenko, a fierce Kremlin critic, died Nov. 23 after ingesting radioactive polonium-210. From his deathbed, he said Mr. Putin was behind his poisoning.

British police said Wednesday that it had apprehended and deported a suspected Russian assassin who was reportedly planning to murder Mr. Berezovsky last month. The tycoon accused the Kremlin of being behind that plot.