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13 August, 2012  ▪  Michael Binyon

Why is Kreml dissatisfied with London?

Out of all Western countries, Russia's worst relations are with the United Kingdom

Inevitably the visit was portrayed in the press as a judo combat. Vladimir Putin was making his first visit to London in nine years to watch the Russian judo team win gold at the Olympics. Would he also throw David Cameron over his shoulder during his brief talks with the British Prime Minister?

The British were fully prepared for tough political combat. Putin had already sent London a stinging snub by refusing an invitation to attend the Olympic opening ceremony and sending his Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, instead. He announced that he would come instead in a "private" capacity to watch judo, a sport in which he is a former champion. It was only with reluctance that he accepted Cameron's suggestion of talks at Downing Street before the two of them went to watch the judo finals together. As everyone in London knows, the Russian President has little love for Britain.

Indeed, in all Russia's dealings with Western nations, relations with Britain are the worst - by far. There is little political dialogue. Co-operation in the field of security has been frozen. Russian ministers rarely come to London. And in Security Council debates and other multilateral meetings, London and Moscow are inevitably on opposite sides.

By contrast, Putin calls in regularly on Paris, had warm personal links with Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister, and counts on Germany as Russia's main political and economic partner in Europe. And although he is deeply suspicious of Washington's intentions, Putin has accepted the "reset" in relations negotiated by Medvedev during his presidency.

What has gone wrong with London? Partly, it is a story of disappointed early hopes on both sides. Putin came to power, succeeding Yeltsin, in 2000 at a time when Britain's youthful Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was at the height of his popularity and influence. Blair saw in Putin a fit, vigorous and decisive new leader who, he thought, would reimpose order at home and make Russia a responsive and dynamic partner overseas. And just as Thatcher had cultivated Gorbachev even before he came to power, saying she could "do business" with him, so Blair imagined Putin could become his political protege and forge a new special relationship with Britain, instead of looking first to Berlin and Paris as most Russians do.

Putin, for his part, believed that Blair was the gateway to better Russians relations with the United States, given the close relations Britain traditionally maintains with all administrations in Washington. And he hoped that London's financial expertise and know-how would kick-start the faltering Russian economy.

But politics got in the way. Putin angrily opposed the Iraq war. He bristled when Blair began to criticise Russia's human rights record. He took offence at being patronised. And he saw Britain as Bush's "poodle", and thought that by kicking Britain, which is relatively cost-free, he could send a hostile message to Washington.

Mainly, however, Putin was angered by the growing presence of dissident Russian exiles in London, especially Boris Berezovsky. Russia demanded his extradition, together with that of Ahmad Akayev, the Chechen playwright. British courts refused the Kremlin request, saying that neither man would receive a fair trial. And Berezovsky continued denouncing Putin and plotting against him from the safety of his London exile.

The crisis came in 2006 with the London murder by a Russian agent, Andrei Lugavoi, of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who had fled to London and had accused the FSB of staging bombings of apartments to bring Putin to power and said Putin ordered the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Britain traced the radioactive polonium poison to Moscow, and demanded Lugavoi's extradition as well as accusing the FSB, and Putin himself indirectly, of responsibility for the murder. Russian diplomats were expelled from London, and Moscow then kicked out British diplomats in the standard tit-for-tat move. Britain's security services broke off all contact and cooperation with the FSB and other Russian official bodies. Then Moscow upped the pressure, accusing the British Council, the non-governmental cultural organisation with a network of offices in Russia, of tax evasion and forced the closure of all the offices except one in Moscow.

This diplomatic quarrel cast a long shadow. Britain place visa restrictions on visiting Russian officials. The British Ambassador in Moscow faced a campaign of harrassment and intimidation from the "Nashi" youth groups. And the press in both countries furiously denounced the other side's human rights record.

The irony is that, apart from politics, Anglo-Russian relations are thriving. Britain is one of Russia's biggest trade and investment partners, and BP, the British-owned oil multinational, is the biggest foreign investor in Russia. Almost all Russian companies wanting to offer shares to foreigners choose London for their flotation. Russian banking and finance have important offices in London.

There is also a huge community of Russians living in Britain - at least 300,000 according to some estimates. A few are dissident exiles, but the majority are businessmen and oligarchs who have made Britain their second home because of a favourable tax regime for non-domiciled businessmen. They buy houses, send their children to famous private schools such as Eton and set up companies in London. The most famous, of course, is Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, whose visibility has underlined Britain's considerable reliance on Russian money in sport, the arts and cultural life. Two of London's newspapers are now owned by Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB official.

Russian tourists come in huge numbers to London and are among the biggest spenders. As a result, there are frequent flights between London and Moscow and there is a clear Russian influence in London - Russians restaurants, clubs and churches are thriving. The Russian ballet, opera and circus regularly make London a main part of their overseas tours.

But the political deadlock continues. This frosty atmosphere makes even business dealings difficult: the Kremlin has taken offence at British criticism of corruption, and is suspected of encouraging the four oligarchs with a joint share in the TNK-BP oil company in their bitter battle against BP. The company has now, in despair, decided to sell its share and pull out of Russia altogether - a signal that will dampen the investment climate for all Westerners

Moscow and London would now like to move on from the Litvinenko affair. Cameron has been pressing for a "reset" in relations, and led a delegation to Moscow last autumn. But this resulted neither in any big contracts nor in any softening of the political disagreements over the Western operation in Libya. Medvedev held amicable talks with Cameron after the Olympic opening ceremony, and told The Times newspaper afterwards that relations were now normal. He added:

"Yes, we have had periods of tension. But this has happened before, and each time the nations and the leaders have found a way to turn the page and face the future, because time trickles on, and a lot in the world depends on British-Russian relations. We are historical partners. We used to be rivals as well."

But it was clear there was no agreement on the main international issue dividing Russia from the rest - Syria. Medvedev insisted that Russian and Western positions were not so far apart. But when Putin arrived, a week later, he made it clear to Cameron that Moscow would not be pushed into abandoning Assad and remained deeply suspicious of Western, especially British, attempts at the UN to introduce a UN resolution authorising the use of force against Syria.

Little is likely to change soon. Britain is too close to America to take an independent line on Russia, and Moscow sees London as simply a cheerleader for the United States. But while Putin is trying to outsmart Cameron in political judo, millions of his countrymen are embracing Britain's language, culture and consumer goods. It is a long time since the Crimean War. But Anglo-Russian relations have rarely been smooth in the 150 years since those distant battles.


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