It appeared that Moscow might at least be reconsidering the severity of its proposed action, according to British sources, with signs of differences between the Russian security services and the foreign ministry.
The British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Andrew Wood, had a 30-minute meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, yesterday in an attempt to iron out the crisis, which began with the arrest of a young Russian man who was allegedly recruited by MI6.
The ambassador emerged from the meeting saying only that the discussion had been "private" - raising hopes that Moscow and London may have made progress in trying to find a discreet deal to end the scandal before further damage is done to bilateral relations.
The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said last night that Mr Primakov did not formally repeat the threat to expel British diplomats during the meeting. Mr Rifkind said Mr Primakov told Sir Andrew that Russia "wanted to avoid any emotional or rushed decisions". During a lengthy meeting, called at Mr Primakov's request, the Russians apparently did not confirm - but did not withdraw - yesterday's threat to expel nine British diplomats.
"No demands were made of a kind that I'm familiar with," Mr Rifkind said in Birmingham, where he had chaired a meeting of European foreign and defence ministers.
Had Mr Primakov confirmed the expulsion of nine diplomats - as the Federal Security Services, the new KGB, demanded - past practice suggests that the ambassador would have announced it immediately. It ended a day of confusion over the fate of the Britons which owes much to an apparent disagreement between the FSB and the Russian Foreign Ministry - tensions that have arisen despite Mr Primakov's past employment as the head of the foreign intelligence services.
The FSB said that Sir Andrew Wood had been handed a list of nine British diplomats at the embassy who had been declared "persona non grata" for having links with the agent, who is accused of "passing on political, defence, and strategic information".
But later in the day the Foreign Ministry - which officially has responsibility for foreign relations - declined to confirm this. Asked when a decision on the expulsions would be taken, a ministry spokesman, Grigory Karasin, said: "As soon as we know about it, we will let you know."
The issue that appears to have divided the two government departments is how Russia should respond to the arrest of the alleged spy. In contrast to the FSB, which is known to contain a large hardline anti-Western element, Mr Karasin was at pains to limit the diplomatic damage: "We see our main task as avoiding an over-emotional reaction and hasty decisions which could have a negative effect on the successful development of inter- governmental relations."
His conciliatory tone gave rise to hopes that there will not be a tit- for-tat exchange between London and Moscow, with both sides throwing out more of the other's nationals. But with an election looming, the Russian government may attempt to exploit the present nationalistic mood of voters.
The Foreign Secretary made it clear yesterday that if the expulsions did go ahead, his veiled threat on Monday to respond in kind would also stand. "We welcome the fact that the Russian government is discussing their concerns with us," he said.
Reading between the lines, it appears that Britain accepts that a genuine case of espionage has been uncovered. But it regards the proposed Russian response as grossly exaggerated, possibly for electoral reasons.
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