TOPICS : Russia, UK ties chill in wake of envoys’ expulsion

For affluent Russians Britain has long been a second home, a place to buy property and educate children in elite English private schools. On Fridays hundreds of Russian bureaucrats routinely commute from Moscow to London, flying back refreshed on Monday morning. Not any longer. Last week’s diplomatic row between the UK and Russia had several obvious consequences, but other, rather more subtle, ones as well.

Last Thursday Vladimir Putin expelled four mid-ranking British diplomats, following Britain’s expulsion of four Russians, and announced that Russia would halt co-operation with Britain on counter-terrorism. The response seemed uncharacteristically — almost puzzlingly — restrained. But the Kremlin also announced that it would no longer issue visas to British government officials and that Russian officials would not even bother to apply for visas to the UK. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov explained what this meant. Although Russian bureaucrats would be free to travel to London on their private passports, they could no longer go on their diplomatic ones. Over a plate of meat specialty in Moscow, Peskov declined to say whether members of Gordon Brown’s cabinet, or MPs, were now banned from visiting Russia.

None the less, the Kremlin has unveiled a new weapon in its simmering dispute with the UK: a boycott of Britain. One senior Kremlin official told this reporter he had been thinking of sending his nine-year-old daughter to a summer camp in Scotland. She was now going to France instead, he said. Other senior bureaucrats are likely to follow suit. At the same time there is now pressure on London-based Russians to spend time somewhere else or face the uncomfortable prospect of the Kremlin’s wrath.

This is bad news for politically ambitious Russians fond of London — and for one man in particular, Roman Abramovich. For some time, Russia’s richest man has managed to pursue his dual identity as London-based emigre and Russian patriot. He has shifted many of his assets out of Russia. He has also made several attempts to resign from his thankless job as governor of Chukotka, a remote province in Russia’s freezing far eastern region. In January Putin told him he had to carry on. And, given the Kremlin’s new boycott of Britain, it is no longer fanciful to wonder whether Abramovich might now consider selling his prize British asset — Chelsea FC.

Putin’s personal grudge towards the UK has manifested itself before. In April, Russian speakers linked to the Kremlin abruptly boycotted the annual Russian Economic Forum at the Queen Elizabeth II centre in central London. Some observers, meanwhile, doubt that the Kremlin’s British boycott will make much difference. “They (Russians) simply have too much linkage with London for them to want to break things off,” one British official said. How long, though, before Abramovich announces that he is quitting London, flogging Didier Drogba and quietly relocating to Paris? — The Guardian