MOSCOW – Britain’s ambassador to Moscow said Monday that the British Council will continue to operate in Russia and warned that any Russian action against it “would be a breach of international law.”
Ambassador Anthony Brenton spoke after he was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry to hear a complaint over Britain’s defiance of an order to shut the offices of the organization, which acts as the cultural arm of the British Embassy, in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.
Russia has responded angrily to Britain’s defiance of its order to close the two offices, calling it a deliberate provocation and threatening punitive measures including restrictions on entry visas for consular officials.
The British Council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg reopened after the holiday break, despite Moscow’s warnings that defying orders to shut them as of Jan. 1 would worsen already strained relations between Britain and Russia.
The developments marked an escalation in tensions and came with ties between London and Moscow at a post-Cold War low, badly frayed by the 2006 poisoning death in Britain of former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko.
Last month, Moscow ordered the closure of the two regional offices of the British Council, saying they were operating illegally. British officials dispute that claim.
The defiance prompted Russia to summon Brenton to the Foreign Ministry for a dressing-down.
“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.
It vowed “a series of administrative and legal measures,” including moves to recover what it said are back taxes owed by British Council’s St. Petersburg office.
In addition, Russia will stop issuing visas for new employees assigned to the British consulates in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, and will not renew the accreditation of current staffers.