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Cameron in Russia: reasons to be positive

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David Cameron’s recent visit to Russia was the subject of some snide criticism in the Russian and British press. But this superficial approach misses the main point: the purpose of the visit lay elsewhere and a good day’s work was done by both sides, says Britain’s former ambassador Tony Brenton

Tony Brenton
19 September 2011

It is not often that the British and Russian press both err in the same direction. Normally the British press overplay all that is dark in Russia, and the Russian press overplay all that is bright. Thus the 2008 Georgia war, as reported in the UK, was a brutal act of imperialist expansion, and, as reported in Russia, legitimate defence against an external attack. Seen from London, BP’s travails are the dark machinations of the Russian State; seen from Moscow, they are the normal sound and fury of business differences between powerful contenders.

So the unanimity of comment from the two edges of Europe on David Cameron’s visit to Moscow last week was striking. Both in London and in Moscow the issue of the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko was front and centre. Both sides gave prominence to the UK’s continuing demand for the extradition of the suspected murderer, Andrei Lugovoi, and to Russia’s firm refusal of that demand. The British press carries pictures of the less than smiling encounter between Cameron and Putin, while in the Russian press it is Medvedev and Cameron looking past each other which takes the front page. The headlines all refer to “efforts to narrow differences” or some such, and it is significantly further down the page that one finds any reference to memoranda signed and business deals agreed.

"The Litvinenko affair had in effect chilled UK/Russian political relations for five years. This was beginning to carry unacceptable costs for both sides."

The picture thus painted in both Moscow and London is deeply, if understandably, misleading. Yes, the Litvinenko issue remains serious, unresolved and, at least in the immediate future, unresolvable. The UK cannot easily abandon its search for justice after a very nasty murder. And Russia probably has very good reasons for not putting Lugovoi in a situation where he might be tempted to tell the truth. But both sides knew this well before the visit took place. They knew they would have to speak firmly to each other on the affair, tell the press afterwards that they had done so, and then get the sabre rattling coverage they got. Why bother?

The answer is that the real importance of the visit lay entirely elsewhere. The Litvinenko affair had in effect chilled UK/Russian political relations for five years. This was beginning to carry unacceptable costs for both sides. Seen from London, a growing list of major British Companies, either already involved in the fast growing Russian market or keen to become so, were looking for top level support for their activities. And in a world which seems now to bounce from crisis to crisis – Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Syria... – it was important to establish a much better understanding between two permanent members of the UN Security Council than was possible in the absence of top level contacts. Russia meanwhile is very conscious in the aftermath of the global crash of her unmodernised and excessively hydrocarbon-dependent economy. She is conscious too of her eroding international influence as old allies (Ukraine, Kazakhstan) increasingly look elsewhere, formerly friendly regimes  (Iraq, Libya, maybe soon Syria) topple, and a resurgent China looms problematically on her Eastern borders. She is therefore hungry for the technology, capital and expertise, which only the West (and occasionally only the UK) can offer, and for a better understanding with a key Western power as the world reshapes itself.

David Cameron had a half-hour meeting with leading Russian human rights activists in the Sakharov Museum to hear about human rights abuses and the lack of political competition in Russia.

In these terms the visit was a significant success. Each side had to demonstrate that it takes the other seriously. In the case of the UK this was done by the Prime Minister coming with an astonishingly heavyweight delegation – the Foreign Secretary, the Trade Minister, the Secretary of the National Security Council, the Head of UKTI [UK Trade & Investment] etc etc, plus 24 extremely senior British businessmen. The old days of Tony Blair turning up with three anonymous officials are plainly past. From the Russian side, the PM’s meeting with Putin (still Russia’s most powerful figure) was itself a significant statement of interest, but the involvement of a whole galaxy of senior Russians – some of them called in from vast distances for the occasion – further underlined how interested the Russians are in revitalising the relationship. The substance, as with all visits of this kind, was substantially precooked, but very satisfactory as an earnest of more active and fruitful UK/Russian exchanges in the future; a decent clutch of trade deals (notably extending visible UK involvement in the Russian economy beyond the traditional confines of oil and gas, in particular into the high tech sectors where the Russians are specially looking for Western involvement), a thorough coverage of the political ground, and a set of memoranda on future contacts and projects. Altogether a good day’s work for both countries.

All of which will leave the dyed in the wool democrat (amongst whom I count myself) asking about the other half of the agenda. OK, the Litvinenko case may be immovable but what about the out of control security organs, pliable judges, subservient broadcasters and managed elections which are such a feature of today’s Russia? What is David Cameron doing shaking the hands which turned the key on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and failed to do so on the killers of Anna Politkovskaya and Sergei Magnitsky?

"David Cameron did enough in public, and I suspect in private, to make it clear which side we are on. There could not have been a clearer symbol than his meeting at the Sakharov Centre with a number of Russian human rights leaders."

The answers given by this visit to these questions may not be as dramatic and confrontational as some would like, but are I think the right ones. David Cameron did enough in public, and I suspect in private, to make it clear which side we are on. There could not have been a clearer symbol than his meeting at the Sakharov Centre with a number of Russian human rights leaders. But he knows very well that Western criticism, however sharply expressed, is not going to change the present state of affairs in Russia. The country is too big, too proud and too enmeshed in its own political and social development to be seriously attentive to advice from without. For an even more extreme example of the same phenomenon think China. But there are messages which will help to edge Russia in the right direction and which will also resonate with the Russian authorities. Russia wants Western technology and investment. Cameron made it very clear in his speech at Moscow University (and no doubt in his private meetings as well) that if Russia is to get these good things in the quantity she ought then she needs to create a much more transparent and legally predictable business environment than is currently the case. The unspoken corollary is of course that a legal system that looks after businesses will sooner or later start looking after human rights as well. Medvedev and many in the Russian system already know this, but it will have been helpful to their cause to have a major potential contributor to Russian economic development underline the point.

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One final foolhardy comment. Russia today is transfixed by the question of who will take over as President next year. Most people expect Putin to take the job back from Medvedev. Watching the conduct of David Cameron’s visit I am not so sure. Medvedev did all the smiling, entertaining and gladhanding. Putin, not a natural gladhander, was able to confine his involvement to a single “businesslike” meeting which no doubt satisfied his curiosity as to what sort of politician Russia is dealing with in David Cameron. I suspect that Putin is very comfortable with this division of labour. Given that, whatever title he holds, he will in fact remain in charge of Russia, why take on all the extra flummery which comes with the job of President?

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