- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2007

LONDON — The row is already deep and nasty. It just got nastier.British prosecutors have just announced they intend to file murder charges against former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi for the radiation poisoning of former colleague Alexander Litvinenko in London in November. Britain will now seek to extradite him to London. Russia says no chance; it will not behanding him over. Real diplomatic trouble is now brewing. Relations between Moscowand London, positively glacial for months, are now entering uncharted, freezing territory.

The diplomatic temperaturehas been falling steadily for some time. In April, Yuri Fedotov, Russia’s ambassador to the UK, characterized British-Russian relations as already bad with the potential to get much worse. Russia says it has several bones to pick with Britain. In April, the Russian government was enraged by a provocative interview given by London-based emigre oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Mr. Berezovsky allegedly called for a revolution to depose Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia has been pressing for Mr. Berezovsky’s extradition to face trial in Moscow ever since 2001. Britain cites the billionaire’s refugee status and freedom-of-speech issues.

But the tit-for-tat extradition rows over Mr. Berezovsky and Mr. Litvinenko are only the latest irritants currently bedeviling British-Russian relations. Britain and Russia have a long history of freeze and thaw.

Despite healthy trade relations — Britain exports worth an estimated $5.8 billion in 2005 and 250,000 free-spending Russian residents delighting retailers in London — both countries are openly grumbling about the other. After thetumult of the Yeltsin years in the 1990s, Mr. Putin has been reasserting Russian influence on the world stage with gusto. And, as part of this revanche, Russia has aspects of British foreign policy in its sights.

Outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair’s policies over Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Iranian nuclear issue have all come in for tart Russian criticism. At the United Nations, Russia now views most British policypronouncements over the Middle East with a critical eye.

It simmers over the political asylum status in London of Chechen rebel leader Akhmed Zakayev. And tacit British support for color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, for NATO membership extended into Eastern Europe and evidence of British intelligence activity in 2006 have all irked Moscow further. Most recently, British support for U.S. missile defense strategy in Europe and UK press criticism of Russian energy policy “imperialism” have also caused anti-British rumblings in the Kremlin.

Russia’s relations with the EU have also become more fractious. At last week’sEU-Russia summit in Samara — by common consent one of themostfrostyEU meetingsthat diplomats can remember — the EU and Russiaclashed noisily over human rights, trade and energy issues, U.S. missile strategy in Europe and over Estoniaand Kosovo. As the summit broke up on May 18, no joint communique was issued, a clear sign that the nip of diplomatic and commercial frostbite is in the air.

The fallout from all these issues continues. Russia is now driving much tougher commercial deals with British energy majors, such as BP and Shell, that are operating in Russia. Bilateral business ties are under some strain. A recent YouGov/Axis survey revealed a majority of British executives regard their Russian business partners with deep suspicion, preferring Poland, China and India as business environments. Russians describe the British as “aloof” in the same survey. The murky case of Alexander Litvinenko’s polonium-210 poison death in London, amid claims it was sanctioned by the Russian government, has only made the bilateral interchange more “complex” of late.

The latest frissons in London reflect a century of traditional deep freeze and thaw in Anglo-Russian relations. Russian ice dropped in British whisky is nothing new. Nor has British fixation with Russia both as potential foe and ally diminished with a century’s passing. Take 1907. Exactly 100 years ago the Russian bear and British lion were embracing warmly. Mutual fears of rising German military power threw both empires together and Russo-British interests neurotically coalesced. Czarist Russia, recovering from popular revolution in 1905, had by 1907 divined that Germany was its most dangerous potential adversary. Under the Anglo-Russian Entente of August 1907, Great Britain and Russia agreed under treaty to defuse imperial competition in Persia, Tibet and Afghanistan, previously strategic chess pieces in their 19th-century great game. The treaty was of profound significance. It formed part of the intricate web of European alliance structures woven prior to the outbreak of Word War I. It presaged the formation of the 1907 Triple Entente of France, Britain and Russia facing the Triple Alliance of tottering Austro-Hungary, unpredictable Italy and confident Germany by 1914.

After 1917, Anglo-Russian relations nosedived. British support for White Russian forces against Bolshevism in Russia’s civil war until 1922 resulted in a 20-year anti-communist deep freeze punctuated by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s alliance of convenience with the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin against Nazi Germany from 1941-45. From 1945-91 the resumption of ideological enmity during the Cold War morphed into a brief period of thaw and rapprochement from 1991 until 2003.

Today’s rows are all a long way from August 1907 and the great entente signed in St Petersburg. And from the heady days of 1991 and V-E Day in 1945. Then, as now, the pattern of Anglo-Russian relations was one of freeze and thaw with both sides calculating maximum advantage. For both countries it seems, the great game — whetherpolitical or commercial — is eternal. A new rocky ride through an ice-bound landscape is now in prospect.

Ronan Thomas is a London-based news correspondent.

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