When David Cameron meets Vladimir Putin in Moscow next week, it will be the first face-to-face contact between a British prime minister and the Russian premier since Tony Blair and Putin parted on poor terms in 2007.
With the possibility of Putin regaining the Russian presidency next year, the U.K. government is aiming to re-establish links that collapsed four years ago amid acrimony over the murder of a Russian dissident in London and raids on offices of the British government’s cultural agency in Russia.
“The lack of contact is reflective of the poor state of Russian relations with the U.K.,” James Nixey, manager of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Chatham House foreign-affairs research group in London, said in a telephone interview. “The Brits are still uncertain who they should be dealing with.”
Putin was unable to run for a third consecutive term as president when his eight years in office came to an end in 2008. He picked Dmitry Medvedev to replace him in the Kremlin, while remaining at the center of power as prime minister. Putin hasn’t ruled out a return to the presidency in elections in March.
“If we have a political dialogue between leaders, it immediately translates into political contacts at lower levels,” the Russian ambassador to the U.K., Alexander Yakovenko, told reporters in London today. “If you have a friend, when you’re not calling them in two years, what do you mean by that?”
Blair and Putin met at a Group of Eight summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, just before Blair quit office in June 2007. Blair said afterward the discussion was “very frank.”
“There are real issues there,” Blair told reporters. “I don’t think it will be resolved anytime soon. Putin set out his beliefs that Russia isn’t being treated properly by the west. I set out our view that people are worried and fearful about Russia today.”
The last contact of any kind was a phone call later that month from Putin to Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, to congratulate him on becoming prime minister. Brown dealt instead with Medvedev, as has Cameron since he took office in May 2010. Medvedev will be Cameron’s host during next week’s visit.
A former Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko, a Kremlin critic who died in November 2006 after being poisoned in London with the radioactive isotope polonium-210, blamed Putin for the murder in a death-bed statement, an accusation the Kremlin called “absurd.”
Russia refused to hand over an ex-KGB bodyguard, Andrei Lugovoi, who is wanted in Britain for Litvinenko’s murder, as the country’s constitution forbids the extradition of Russian citizens.
The dispute sparked the expulsion of four Russian and four U.K. diplomats and Russia’s closure of U.K. cultural offices outside Moscow. The U.K. also froze cooperation with Russia’s Federal Security Service, the domestic successor to the KGB.
Relations were further damaged by Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. Cameron, then in opposition, flew to Georgia and condemned the act.
“Cooperation stopped after the Litvinenko case,” Yakovenko said. “We believe that we have to re-establish these relations. Everything is in the hands of the British side. We’re ready.”
The Russian ambassador suggested the U.K. should agree to Lugovoi standing trial in Russia.
“We’re asking for some proof that this is the man who’s guilty,” the envoy said. “As soon as we get this information, we can start cooperating and put this case in the Russian courts.”
Yakovenko also called on British forces in Afghanistan to take action to stop the flow of heroin from the central Asian nation.
“Fight with the drug dealers, take them on, destroy the crops,” he said. “Every year we have an increase in production of heroin. We’re asking ourselves why.”
Since taking office, Cameron has focused on building trade links around the world in an effort to help the U.K.’s stalling economy.
Business Secretary Vince Cable made a three-day visit to Russia in November 2010 with the largest-ever British business delegation. The group was composed of 37 companies, including BP Plc, which has a 50 percent stake in TNK-BP, Russia’s third-largest oil producer, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Rolls-Royce Group Plc, the world’s second-largest aircraft-engine maker.
Nixey said U.K. prime ministers moved between “honesty and expediency” in their attitude to Russia. For Cameron, “the question is which is it going to be now.”