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Litvinenko case poisons UK-Russian relations

Britain's move to charge a Russian businessman for last year's murder of a Kremlin critic may affect cooperation on a range of international issues.

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Six months to the day after Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko died from polonium poisoning, the contamination is spreading far beyond the initial target to pollute relations between Russia and the West in general, and Britain in particular.

Britain's decision Tuesday to try to prosecute an ex-KGB agent for Mr. Litvinenko's murder last November adds a new layer of frost to diplomatic exchanges that are already at their iciest since the cold war, warn politicians and experts in London and Moscow.

British prosecutors said they wanted to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, a Russian businessman who met Mr. Litvinenko on the day he fell ill, and prosecute him for murder. Mr. Lugovoi, a former KGB agent, has repeatedly insisted he is innocent.

Top prosecutor Sir Ken Macdonald called it an "extraordinarily grave crime," while Downing Street said that despite the need for cordial relations with Russia, the rule of law had to be respected, "and we will not in any way shy away from trying to ensure that that happens in a case such as this."

No one expects Russia to surrender Lugovoi, though. The Kremlin has barely concealed its contempt for the British process, insisting Russia had nothing to do with the murder and cooperating only grudgingly with the British investigation. Yesterday, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor general's office said Russian citizens cannot by law be handed over to foreign countries. Period.

At face value, the consideration is this: Was Litvinenko's poisoning the work of a state-sponsored plot or the wretched result of a private grievance?

But underneath the mysterious twists reminiscent of a spy novel lurks a broad agenda of international issues, from energy security to Iran to NATO expansion, that are threatening to rupture relations between Moscow and the West. In short, analysts say, it is not just that the Litvinenko affair is poisoning relations, but that poisoned relations will make it difficult to clear up the Litvinenko affair.

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