The row between Russia and Britain over the fate of the British Council dramatically escalated today after the council confirmed that one of its senior British staff members – the son of Neil Kinnock – had been arrested.
The council said it was "deeply concerned" for the safety of its British and Russian staff in the country following the arrest last night of Stephen Kinnock, the director of its St Petersburg office, and the interrogation of other employees.
Britain lodged an immediate diplomatic protest today, summoning Russia’s ambassador to London, Yury Fedotov, for an urgent meeting at the Foreign Office.
Peter Ricketts, the head of the British diplomatic service, was expected to tell Fedotov that any "attack" on Britain’s cultural arm would damage the Russian government’s reputation.
Talking about the meeting, the foreign secretary, David Miliband, said: "Any intimidation or harassment of officials is obviously completely unacceptable.
"The only losers from any attack on the British Council are Russian citizens who want to use the British Council – and the reputation of the Russian government."
Russian police detained Stephen Kinnock at 11.30pm last night when he was driving in the city. They claimed he had a "heavy smell of alcohol on his breath" and had violated traffic rules. Officials held him for an hour and then released him.
The cultural organization rejected the claim that Kinnock had been drunk. It said he appeared to be the victim of a sinister pattern of state-backed intimidation and deliberate harassment against its staff.
The Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) – the successor agency to the KGB – yesterday summoned all members of staff working for the British Council’s two remaining regional offices in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg to the FSB’s headquarters.
Late last night, officers from Russia’s ministry of interior visited the private homes and flats of all the British Council’s regional Russian employees.
The St Petersburg office announced this morning that it had temporarily suspended work in the wake of the unprecedented campaign against its British and Russian employees.
"Our main concern is for the safety and security of our Russian and UK staff. We are deeply concerned by these incidents," said a statement from the council this morning.
"We can confirm that last night Stephen Kinnock was followed, stopped and subsequently released an hour later by Russian authorities.
"We can also confirm that our Russian national staff, in both St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, were yesterday summoned for interview by the FSB at their headquarters and subsequently visited in their homes late last night by officials of the Russian ministry of interior."
The arrest of Kinnock, the son of the former labor leader, on apparently trumped-up charges is likely to infuriate the British government and lead to a further escalation in the deepening row between London and Moscow.
The Kremlin ordered the British Council to shut its two regional offices last month. It said it was a response to Britain’s decision last July to expel four Russian diplomats in connection with the murder of the Russian dissident, Alexander Litvinenko, in London in November 2006.
Britain refused to obey. On Monday, the British Council re-opened its St Petersburg office following the Christmas and New Year break, insisting that its work in Russia was legal and governed by a 1994 bilateral agreement.
Russia hit back by saying it would now refuse to give or renew visas for the council’s regional staff. Yesterday, pro-Kremlin politicians and former KGB generals also denounced Britain’s move and called for further punitive action.
Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, whose daughter was educated at the London School of Economics, entered the row by accusing Britain of "colonial" thinking and "nostalgia for empire".