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But most observers backed the sentiment expressed by Britain’s former ambassador to Russia, Tony Brenton, who told BBC radio that the Foreign Office had “slightly overreached themselves here.”

Lawyer Alex Carlile, told Sky News television that, in any case, “it sets a very dangerous precedent … that could rebound on Britain.”

“I fear the government roared rather like a mouse in this case, and would be best not to have made that threat,” he said.

Britain’s government seems to have toned down its rhetoric. Speaking to reporters Thursday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted that Britain would act within the law.

“We are committed to working with them amicably to resolve the matter,” he said. “There is no threat here to storm an embassy.”

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Raphael Satter can be reached at: http://raphae.li/twitter