Britain boots out Russian diplomat for alleged spying

The Guardian, MOSCOW

Thu, Dec 23, 2010 - Page 6

Britain’s troubled relations with Moscow suffered another blow on Tuesday when British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced he had expelled a Russian diplomat in London following “clear evidence” of Russian spying.

In a brief statement on Tuesday afternoon, Hague said he had asked the Russian embassy in London to “withdraw a member of their staff from the UK.”

The ultimatum issued on Dec. 10 “was in response to clear evidence of activities by the Russian intelligence services against UK interests,” Hague said.

Russia responded on Dec. 16 by expelling a British diplomat from the British embassy in Moscow, Hague said.

“We reject any basis for this action,” Hague added.

Both staff members have now been withdrawn from their respective missions.

No further details were given, but the tit-for-tat expulsions are apparently not linked to Katia Zatuliveter, the 25-year-old Russian researcher working for the British Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament Mike Hancock.

Earlier this month, British Home Secretary Theresa May announced she was deporting Zatuliveter on national security grounds. The Russian — who had worked for Hancock since 2008 — had allegedly been supplying sensitive information to the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency.

Zatuliveter strongly denies the charge. She is appealing against the home secretary’s deportation order. After being held in a detention center, she is currently free on bail.

According to sources at the Houses of Parliament in London, Zatuliveter had access to Hancock’s private e-mails, and virtually ran the UK-Russia group at the House of Commons chaired by Hancock until this summer.

The tit-for-tat expulsions are a severe embarrassment for Hague, who had vowed to improve relations with the Kremlin, which he described as “very poor” under the previous (Labour) government. Last month, he traveled to Moscow and was granted a rare audience with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev — a clear sign that Moscow is also keen to move on from the murder in London of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is now due to travel to Russia early next year. It will be the first visit by a British prime minister since the Litvinenko scandal.