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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 December 2007, 09:14 GMT
Russia's new front in UK spat
Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC News, Moscow

File photograph of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the closure order was retaliation
You may have thought that relations between Britain and Russia could not get any worse.

I thought relations between Britain and Russia could not get any worse. I was wrong.

Russia has decided to raise the stakes again, and the victim is the poor old British Council.

You may have never heard of the British Council. Even if you have, you may have no idea what it does. Plenty of people do not.

Even the British Ambassador to Moscow seemed a bit confused as to whether the Russians were ordering the closure of the British Council or the British Consul.

Political point

What it does elsewhere, I am not sure, but in Russia, the British Council used to teach a lot of people English, and it offers rather fewer scholarships to study in Britain.

Closing down its offices outside Moscow sounds rather self-defeating, but then the Russian government has repeatedly shown itself willing to do things that hurt Russia in order to make a political point.

Should we change our constitution because we are ordered to by the British foreign secretary? No! We are not a colony of Great Britain
Russian MP

And the closing of the British Council is very much political.

No lesser figure than the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told me so himself.

The closure order was, he said, "retaliation" for the British government's decision to expel Russian diplomats from the UK in July.

That does not make sense.

In July, Britain expelled four Russian diplomats in response (call it retaliation if you like) to Russia's refusal to extradite a man named Andrei Lugovoi to stand trial in the UK.

Britain accuses him of taking part in the murder of a Russian exile, Alexander Litvinenko, in London in 2006.

But after Britain expelled the four Russians, Moscow wasted no time in retaliating.

It immediately expelled four British diplomats. It was tit-for-tat. Everybody thought that was it.

Yes, relations between Britain and Russia would remain frosty for a while, but both sides had made their point.

Neither wanted a full blown diplomatic war. Or so we all thought.

Deliberate slight

Now Moscow says it is ordering the closure of all but one of the British council offices in Russia. Why? And why now?

The answer seems to be that the diplomatic war is not over.

And at the moment, neither Britain nor Russia seems at all interested in making the first move to bring it to an end.

File photograph of Andrei Lugovoi
The UK's repeated calls for Mr Lugovoi's extradition still rankle

Has Britain done anything that could have provoked Russia? Yes, lots of things.

Mr Lavrov confirmed to me that Gordon Brown has still not bothered to pick up the phone to call Vladimir Putin since taking over as British prime minister.

It is a deliberate slight, and Russia is a proud country that does not take kindly to such treatment.

Britain's Ambassador to Moscow, Sir Anthony Brenton, has also given Russia reason to feel aggrieved.

First, he has continued to repeat loudly and publicly Britain's demand that Russia extradite Mr Lugovoi, despite the fact that Russia has made it extremely clear it cannot and will not do so.

"Should we change our constitution because we are ordered to by the British foreign secretary?" one Russian member of parliament barked at me last week. "No! We are not a colony of Great Britain."

No lectures, please

And this, for the Russians, is the crux of it.

Russia is a very big country, with an equally large inferiority complex.

It was clear from speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov that Russia still perceived the world as being out to get it.

It still feels deeply humiliated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and even more so by the chaos of the 1990s when it was forced to beg from the West.

Russia is still a weak country, with a shambolic economy, decrepit infrastructure and a military where young conscripts are regularly beaten to death by their officers.

But now it has the steroid of oil revenues running through its veins, and that is making Russia feel strong again.

It will no longer be lectured to by the West, and certainly not by the likes of Foreign Secretary David Miliband or his representative in Moscow.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defends Russia's action

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