But they were able to limit the damage after Russia backed off its initial plan to expel nine diplomats in an dispute which began after the arrest of a Russian allegedly working for MI6 in Moscow.
The Foreign Office, which throughout threatened to retaliate if Russia went ahead with expulsions, finally acted after Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Krylov, told Britain's ambassador to Moscow, Sir Andrew Wood, that four embassy staff had to be withdrawn in the next few days.
Yesterday afternoon the Foreign Office minister, Sir Nicholas Bonsor, summoned the Russian ambassador in London, Anatoly Adamishin, and handed him the names of four Russian embassy staff Britain wants to be withdrawn within a fortnight. Sir Nicholas told the ambassador the four had been involved in gathering key intelligence in scientific and technological developments, as well as in the political and economic fields. "We are acting in direct retaliation to the Russian action," said a spokesman for the Foreign Office.
That it took 11 days publicly to announce the expulsions suggests the two sides have worked out an agreement, and that there will be no outbreak of spiralling tit-for-tat expulsions that characterised Cold war espionage disputes.
In 1989, both sides threw out 11 journalists and diplomats in a similar spying fracas.
Yesterday the Foreign Office said it hoped this "would be the end of the matter", saying Britain wanted to maintain a "co-operative relationship" with Russia. Last night it did not divulge the names of the expelled officials. But British sources made it clear that Whitehall would retaliate once again if Moscow responded by expelling other British diplomats. It seems that Britain had entertained hopes until yesterday that the affair would drift away without any Russian action. The Russians have still to inform Britain of the identity of the man at the centre of the accusations and to give details of the allegations against British embassy personnel.
A British source said there had been long and tortuous negotiations but in the end it was fair to say that neither side had come out on top. "It's more like a scoring draw," the source said. There remains, however, considerable puzzlement at the highly public Russian action, given the fact that a certain amount of light espionage is acknowledged and accepted on both sides. "Their behaviour is redolent of the Cold war," one British source said. "We still don't quite understand why."
The furore began after the Russian Federal Security Services (FSB) arrested a young man, a diplomat working in the Russian Foreign Ministry, whom they said they caught red-handed. The man, whom they said had access to sensitive military information, was accused of having contact with the British Secret Intelligence Services (SIS) in the embassy.
Sir Andrew was summoned to the Foreign Office to receive a list of the names of nine embassy staff, "career spies", to be expelled. As he drove out of the embassy gates, opposite the Kremlin, he was filmed by Russian agents posing as tourists on the pavement outside.
The Foreign Office has maintained that the allegations are unjustified, insisting that the Russians failed to supply any evidence, including the name and identity of the arrested Russian.
When the row erupted, it looked suspiciously like a political manoeuvre by Mikhail Barsukov, head of the Federal Security Service, the heir to the KGB, to try to boost the prospects of Boris Yeltsin in next month's election by appealing to the strong nationalist sentiments in Russia. But it shows little sign of success: Russians have largely indifferent to the scandal, which has received scant media coverage. Indeed, some, long used to distrusting the Soviet government, have openly scoffed at it.
The result was a public rift between the FSB and the Russian Foreign Ministry, which, whilst maintaining that the spying charge was true,took a softer line throughout. The Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, became the chief negotiator, a role which, remarkably, endeared him to some elements in the Foreign Office who admired his negotiating skills.
There is some evidence that the row was an attempt by the hardline FSB to warn other foreign countries against spying in Russia, which has seen a surge of espionage since relaxing controls following the end of the Cold War. In the last few days it has also expelled an American in a spying controversy, and has picked a fight with the neighbouring Baltic republic of Estonia, which it accuses of being a source of arms for paramilitary groups, including the IRA.
The role of Boris Yeltsin in the drama remains unclear. Some sources say he remained largely aloof, concentrating on his intensifying efforts to fight off the ambitions of the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, to move into the Kremlin. However, according to the Moscow News, which has close contacts with the Russian security services, the President personally authorised the arrest of the MI6 agent, and agreed to the plan to throw out British diplomats.
The paper says that the Russians began working on the case after discovering that state secrets were leaking abroad.
The Kremlin's agents in London quickly established who the man was working for, and why he was passing on information.
Their source? The British intelligence services, which in recent years has largely been uninterfered with during its operations in Russia.Reuse content