Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 99

The post-Yeltsin era love-fest between Russia and Britain continued this week as both Foreign Minister Robin Cook and Princess Anne traveled to Moscow to attend an inauguration ceremony for the newly constructed British embassy building. The visit also provided the princess, who is the only daughter of Queen Elizabeth, an opportunity for a brief meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. For Cook, the visit was a chance to further boost bilateral relations which have already grown remarkably warm in the few short months since former President Boris Yeltsin’s unexpected resignation.

Indeed, the embassy opening provided a ready backdrop to these improving Russian-British ties. Both Cook and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov pointed to the symbolic significance attached to the opening of the highly modernized British embassy building, suggesting that it reflected a new openness and a new era in Russian-British ties. The embassy building, built over three years at a cost of approximately US$130 million, was described in reports as a modern chancellery of wood and glass, designed as a window on Britain and Russia. “The new British embassy has been designed and built during a period of transition for Russia,” Cook was quoted as saying at the inauguration ceremony. “A period also of huge transition in relations between our countries–from Cold War to partners for peace.” Interestingly enough, Vladimir Gusinsky, head of the same Media-Most company which has in recent days been subject to very Cold War-style intimidation tactics by Russian authorities, was among the guests at the embassy ceremony.

But Cook appeared not to dwell on such unpleasantness, or to focus overmuch attention on Russia’s ongoing war in the Caucasus. He did tell British journalists following his talks on Wednesday with Ivanov that he had raised the issue of British concerns over the Chechen conflict. But the strength of Cook’s objections may have been best reflected in comments released to journalists by Ivanov himself yesterday. In those remarks Ivanov praised Britain for what he called London’s “carefully thought-out and balanced position” on Chechnya (Russian agencies, May 18).

That Cook chose not to accent Western unhappiness over the war in Chechnya was, of course, no surprise. London has made clear in recent weeks that it sees the emergence of Vladimir Putin as an opportunity to rebuild friendly ties between Russia and the West, and that it does not intend to let differences over the Caucasus war complicate this policy of engagement. Britain is not alone among leading Western nations in pursuing this policy, though British Prime Minister Tony Blair does seem to have taken it further than his NATO partners. Blair’s seeming determination to befriend Russia–and Putin personally–was manifested in a trip he took to St. Petersburg in March for talks with the then acting Russian president, and then again in April, when he hosted a visit by Putin to London. Both visits generated considerable criticism of Blair in Britain and among various human rights groups because they came amid charges that Russian troops had committed atrocities in Chechnya. Blair’s visit to St. Petersburg, moreover, was seen by many as a blatant “endorsement” of Putin’s candidacy only days before the Russian presidential election.

What was described as the primary focus of Cook’s visit to Moscow on this occasion, however, may go some way toward providing at least preliminary evidence as to whether Britain’s courting of Moscow will pay any dividends. Although Cook’s talks with Ivanov reportedly ranged across a broad array of international and bilateral issues, the British minister apparently pressed hardest for Moscow to sign on to a proposal by which the Group of Eight (the world’s seven leading industrialized nations plus Russia) would seek to curb illegal diamond sales. Britain is pushing the plan on the grounds that such sales have proven to be a major source of funding for rebel groups in the African countries of Sierra Leone, Angola and Congo, and that the illegal sales have therefore helped to fuel the recent violence that has engulfed these countries. London reportedly believes that Russia, as a major diamond producer in its own right and also as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, must be part of the proposed international diamond certification system in order for it to work effectively. The certification system, agreed to at a meeting last week in South Africa, would prevent the import of diamonds unless they are certified by the producer nation as coming from a legitimate source (AP, May 16; May 17).

It is difficult to say whether Cook made much headway in his talks with Ivanov. The British minister said that an agreement had been reached by which British experts will travel to Moscow to explain the diamond certification proposal in detail. But Ivanov apparently refused to make any commitments to the proposal beyond that. According to Cook, the Russian and British experts will study the problem in Russia, and will then report their findings at the upcoming G-7 plus Russia summit in Japan this July. Although Russia reportedly sells most of its official diamond production to the South African cartel De Beers, it is also suspected of allowing additional diamond sales on the side (AP, UPI, Russian agencies, May 17).

Another point of interest raised during Cook’s visit involved Russia’s current relations with Britain relative to those with France and Germany. Russian commentators have suggested that Putin has departed from the policies of his predecessor by placing an emphasis on ties with Britain rather than on ties with Germany and France, as Yeltsin had done. Cook appeared to dismiss that notion, explaining to reporters that there were no such rivalries among European powers in their relations with Moscow (Itar-Tass, May 17). The fact nevertheless remains that Putin and Blair have moved rapidly toward consolidating what is being called a “strategic partnership” between the two countries, while Moscow’s ties to Paris and Berlin appear to have languished by comparison. That may be at least in part because France and Germany have been more critical of Russian behavior in the Caucasus than has Britain.

It may be noteworthy that in early April Russian Foreign Ministry sources suggested that Putin had shown little interest in continuing meetings of the so-called “European triangle”–that is, official talks between the leaders of Russia, France and Germany (Russian agencies, April 6). Under Boris Yeltsin the Kremlin had worked hard to establish this forum (which was also attractive to Moscow because Washington was excluded), and though little came of the initiative it was considered something of a foreign policy success. But the three-way meetings appeared to be dealt a first blow by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s election in Germany in late 1998. He immediately made clear that he did not favor the sort of personalized relations which had existed earlier between Yeltsin and then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Putin’s assent to power, and his seeming affinity for the British Prime Minister, may have dealt a final blow to the fledgling French-German-Russian partnership.