British politicians have united in their condemnation of Russia following the inquiry on the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London but the government has promised only limited action in response for diplomatic reasons.
The independent report into Litvinenko's death, released on Thursday, concluded he was poisoned to death "probably" under the orders of Russian president Vladimir Putin – but the British government appears reluctant to impose economic sanctions due to the need to cooperate with the Russian state on tackling the spread of ISIS in Syria.
Home Secretary Theresa May told the House of Commons that the government would now freeze the assets of the two prime suspects in the 2006 murder case — Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi — who are currently in Russia. They will also be subject to worldwide arrest warrants but Russia has repeatedly refused to extradite the men and has shown little indication of changing its mind. Russia has dismissed the UK findings, calling it "politically motivated" and "not transparent."
May said the murder was a "blatant breach of international law and of civilised behaviour" and pledged further crackdowns on visas for Russian officials, while the Russian ambassador to UK will be summoned to explain his country's stance at the foreign office.
However, there was little indication that the government is keen to take stronger action after the inquiry's findings on the murder, which was carried out using radioactive material at a central London hotel.
A Downing Street spokesperson said David Cameron condemned the "extremely disturbing" incident but noted there is also a need to put "national security first" when considering the appropriate response.
Leading politicians concluded the government must "weigh carefully" the need to take measures with the "broader need to work with Russia on certain issues".
Labour's shadow home secretary Andy Burnham said there "can be no sense of the government pulling its punches because of wider diplomatic considerations".
"If we were to do that, wouldn’t that send a terrible message to the world that Britain is willing to tolerate outrageous acts of state violence on its soil and appease those who sanction them," he told MPs.
Fellow Labour MP Ian Austin also mocked the home secretary's response: “Well they’ll be quaking in their boots in the Kremlin today," he said.
"Putin is an unreconstructed KGB thug and gangster who murders his
opponents in Russia and on the streets of London. Nothing announced today will
make the blindest bit of difference,” Austin added.
Conservative mayor of London Boris Johnson went further, telling LBC radio the incident demanded the "most ferocious possible diplomatic response” in order to show "we will not tolerate that kind of behaviour." But it is likely his calls will go unheeded.
May rejected calls to take up the issue with the United Nations Security Council, because Russia is a permanent member and unlikely to allow the issue to be discussed. She also said concerns about Russia hosting high-profile sporting events, such as the forthcoming football World Cup in 2016, were ultimately matter for sporting organisations.
She also rejected calls for a UK version of the US Magnitsky Act, which would ban specific Russian officials from entering the country. She said the government's main focus was on getting Kovtun and Lugovoi to come to the UK – not banning them.
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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