David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, will meet Vladimir Putin, Russia’s premier, during an official visit to Moscow next week, indicating that both sides are trying to warm a relationship damaged by the assassination of a former Russian spy in London in 2006.
As Mr Cameron prepares to conduct the first trip by a UK prime minister to Russia in five years, the announcement of a face-to-face meeting demonstrates that London and Moscow want to improve their relationship. Mr Cameron will also meet Dmitry Medvedev, Russian president, during his visit.
Britain and Russia announced earlier this year that Mr Cameron would be the first British prime minister to visit Moscow since Tony Blair made an official trip to Moscow in 2006. The relationship had been badly undermined that year by the poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy. British intelligence officers have suggested in the past that he was murdered at the behest of the Russian state.
Brown, Mr Cameron’s predecessor, went some way towards repairing relations with Russia, meeting Mr Medvedev at several international conferences during his three years as prime minister.
However, the last time Mr Putin met a British prime minister was in July 2007 when he held a bilateral meeting with Mr Blair at a G7 summit. On that occasion, the two men had a “very frank” hour-long discussion – diplomatic code for a row.
Monday’s announcement indicates that Mr Putin is seeking to rehabilitate his reputation in the west, and will probably fuel speculation that he intends to return to the presidency next year in March elections.
The meeting with Mr Putin also suggests the visit may at least partly focus on the situation of BP, the UK oil major, in the wake of a raid by bailiffs and armed special forces on its offices in Moscow last week.
Mr Putin is widely seen as the primary arbiter of Russia’s vast oil and gas complex, as well as problem solver of last resort in a country where personalities matter more than institutions.
Russia, however, has been keen to show its readiness to welcome foreign investment, and last week announced a partnership between Rosneft and Exxon to explore for oil in Russia’s Arctic offshore areas, the same deal that BP was negotiating.
The chief impediment to closer relations between the UK and Russia remains the poisoning of Mr Litvinenko. Britain has unsuccessfully sought the extradition by Russia of chief suspect Alexander Lugovoi, who has since been elected to Russia’s parliament. Russia says that Britain has not presented enough evidence to warrant extradition.
“There is no room for manoeuvre on either side,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chief editor of Russia in Global Affairs, the Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Cameron cannot pretend the issue doesn’t exist, while Putin’s position is clear: no foreign interference in Russian affairs. The success of the meeting will depend on whether they can agree to disagree and move on.”