Monday, July 16, 2007

Patriot Games : the end of the Litvinenko scandal is near

Britain's response to Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi voiced by the new foreign secretary David Miliband was the most direct response out of all for Britain to maintain face and look firm, and unless any unforeseen actions will be taken by a third party, after Russia's response, the Litvinenko affair will finally reach a dead end.

Britain's response was aimed specifically at Russian agencies that are suspected of aiding Andrei Lugovoi. The four Russian diplomats that will be extradited are as is the usual case in such practice officers of Russia's security services working under diplomatic cover. The visa cooperation consultations which will be suspended affect mostly visas for Russian governmental officials, specifically those of the executive branch, again the various ministries, security services and the President's administration. As reported, from now on most of the governmental contacts between Russia and Britain will have to be sanctioned from the very top to get clearance.

The actions of the UK foreign ministry were carefully planned not to hurt regular Russian citizens visiting or working in Britain, and most importantly Russian companies which have established a high degree of mutual dependency in various spheres of involvement from energy cooperation to plain-vanilla IPOs and real estate purchases in London. Mr. Miliband began his report by saying that the situation was paradoxical in that economic ties between Russia and the UK had never been so strong.

Now Britain is waiting to see the actions of its Russian counterpart, it has already heard the Russian foreing ministry calling out Britain's actions as "immoral" and masterminded at the highest levels with the goal of politicizing a criminal investigation. Most analysts expect Russia to extradite four British diplomats and perhaps continue putting pressure on the British Council. But apart from that the options to act rationally for both sides are exhausted.

There can be no talk of cooperation between the criminal investigators of the two sides. Britain claims it has an abundance of evidence to support its claim of Lugovoi's guilt and Russia claims it has received no substantial evidence, referring to it as hearsay. Mr. Lugovoi appearing in an interview with Russia Today television network seated in front of a bookcase with a very visible volume of Sherlock Holmes even complained that he had received no invitation to come to the UK for his trial.

But what happens next? The possible scenarios are in abundance yet all of them seem very unlikely. First, the trial of Mr. Lugovoi may occur in Moscow; second, the trial may occur in a third country; third, Russia will use the issue as a trading tool on the global arena. All of the scenarios stumble on two facts. Both the UK and Russia are in the conflict too deep and it is too late for any of the countries to back off without a major reputation blow (neither the new Brown government wants it nor Putin's administration). The UK also refuses to extradite Russia's most wanted targets - the happy couple of Mr. Berezovsky and Mr. Zakaev. So any potential for mutual concessions on the issue of a possible trial are already slim.

Russia's possible use of the Lugovoi extradition as a bargaining tool in the Iran or the Kosovo debate is ruled out by Russian foreign policy expert Fedor Lukyanov. In an interview with the Financial Times he states that "Russia’s opposition to an international plan to prepare Kosovo for independence is a matter of principle and not a bargaining position designed to extract some sort of concessions from the west."

Thus as of today both the UK and Russia are in a position where they have saved face in front of their own people (yet for Russia a significant blow was made to its reputation on the world stage thanks in part to the foreign press). Financial Times columnists Phillip Stephens has called Britain's actions minimal, but they are enough to put a freeze on the conflict without further consequences for both sides. Is the Lugovoi extradition that important of an issue for British citizens? I do not believe it is even in the top three priorities of the new Labor government. It is definitively lower than the goal of expanding economic cooperation with one of the fastest growing emerging economies, Russia.

Even if the Lugovoi extradition was a priority, Britain in the eyes of its citizens and in the eyes of its Western partners is the victim of a "hostile" Russia and so is painted white; it does not need anything more than that.

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