The diplomatic crisis between the UK and Russia – stemming from the radiation poisoning in London of the former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko – escalated significantly yesterday as the Russian government retaliated after Britain decided to reopen two regional cultural offices in defiance of the Kremlin.
The head of the British Council in Russia, James Kennedy, acknowledged that his organisation had become the latest casualty of the Litvinenko affair, telling the BBC: "We regret that the British Council, as a cultural and educational organisation, has become involved in what is essentially a political dispute."
The Russian foreign ministry summoned Britain's ambassador to Moscow, Sir Anthony Brenton, to protest against the reopening of the council's St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg offices after the new year break.
"The ambassador was told that the Russian side sees such actions as a deliberate provocation aimed at inciting tension in Russian-British relations," the ministry said, adding that it would refuse new visas for British Council staff in the two cities.
It also promised "a series of administrative and legal measures", including moves to recover what it claimed were back taxes owed by the St Petersburg office. "We expect our British partners to stop ignoring obvious facts and refrain from a line of further confrontation that is fraught with the most negative consequences for Russian-British relations," the ministry said.
Sir Anthony, however, was equally defiant, warning that any Russian action against the council would "breach international law". He said: "The British Council is working entirely legally, and it will continue, therefore, to work."
He added that Russia's Foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, had "made it very clear" that Moscow's action stemmed from the row over Britain's attempt to extradite the prime suspect for the 2006 murder of Mr Litvinenko – former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi.
Sir Anthony said: "They have made a very clear political connection. We think that connection is a mistake. There is an issue about Mr Lugovoi but to turn that issue into an attack on an institution that is valuable to Russia and valuable to the United Kingdom is frankly mystifying."
Britain's already tense relations with Russia plunged to Cold War levels last year after officials in London said they intended to prosecute Mr Lugovoi. Russia refused to extradite him, prompting Britain to expel four Russian diplomats. Moscow responded by expelling four Britons.
Last month, Moscow accused the British Council, which promotes cultural relations and educational exchanges, of operating illegally and gave it until 1 January to close its two regional offices.
Yesterday, the foreign ministry said the continued operation of the St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg branches could lead to "additional measures, including in relation to the British Council office in Moscow" – an apparent warning that the council's main office in Russia could be closed.
Sir Anthony was given a "long piece of paper" explaining the Russians' view of the legal position. The Foreign Office was studying the document last night.