With relations between Russia and the west already at a very low ebb, the government’s decision to charge former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko will plunge them further into the deep freeze.
Russian opposition to US plans to install missile interceptors near its borders, western concerns over the Kremlin’s clampdown on democracy and trade disputes between Moscow and new member states of the European Union have all tested bilateral links.
The head of the Russian parliament’s international affairs committee, Konstantin Kosachyov, said matters could now worsen. “If we see that these are political and not legal conclusions, then, of course, this will have the most negative impact on our relations,” he said. “So far all we have is the political statement from the head of the prosecutors’ service that he personally considers the arguments of the police enough.”
Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, described it as “a serious crime”. She added: “We are seeking, and expect, full co-operation from the Russian authorities . . . ” That point, she made clear, had been conveyed “strongly” to the Russian ambassador to the UK, Yury Fedotov, who was called in to the Foreign Office immediately after the prosecutors’ statement on Tuesday.
Russian prosecutors said they would refuse requests to extradite Mr Lugovoi.
A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, would say only that UK prosecutors must now officially hand over the evidence to their Russian counterparts.
Several British businessmen working in Moscow have expressed fears the fallout over Litvinenko’s poisoning with polonium-210 could damage their operations.
BP’s Russian venture TNK-BP already faces the threat of having the licence to develop its vast Kovykta gas field revoked.
Britain has become a focus for Moscow’s ire because it granted political asylum to arch-Kremlin enemy Boris Berezovsky.
Last month Mr Berezovsky called for Vladimir Putin’s regime to be overthrown by force.
Mr Berezovsky said on Tuesday that the charges against Mr Lugovoi also implicated Mr Putin. “Without the participation of the state leadership, it would be impossible to commit this crime,” Mr Berezovsky said. The Kremlin has consistently denied any involvement.
Litvinenko was a former agent who accused the Kremlin of being behind a series of bombings that propelled Mr Putin to the presidency in 1999. When news of Litvineneko’s death broke last year, Russian officials accused western media of waging a campaign of “anti-Russian hysteria” based on “unfounded” claims that either Mr Putin or rogue elements of the security services were behind the killing.
Yury Shvets, a former KGB officer now based in Washington, said: “I’m pretty sure Lugovoi was just the executor of the crime. I am convinced that the trail leads higher and the whole attitude of the Russian government is proof of that.”
Mr Lugovoi and the associates who travelled to London to meet Litvinenko before his death have since appeared on Russian television protesting their innocence.