Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 2

A late December visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Britain capped off what many analysts believe has been a highly successful year for Russian diplomacy. The visit, which marked the fifth meeting between Putin and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2001 and their ninth over the past two years, also embodied many of the policy goals the Kremlin has pursued over the past year and especially since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. They include Putin’s broader turn toward the West and his continued wooing of European governments, and the European Union, even amid a pronounced warming of ties between Washington and Moscow. In a similar fashion, Putin’s discussion agenda in Britain reflected the growing role that Russia has come to play in deliberations on key international security issues. The two leaders addressed issues ranging from cooperation in the U.S.-led antiterror war, to improved prospects for Russian-NATO interaction, to arms control and Russia’s strivings for membership in the World Trade Organization. Both men also suggested that their meeting was taking place amid an historical realignment of geopolitical forces in the wake of September 11, and Blair went out of his way in this context to praise Moscow. “I think the whole perception of Russia, in Europe and in the West, has been transformed,” he said, adding that Russia is becoming “an even stronger player on the world stage.”

This same congratulatory mood was evident in comments the two men made on the extent to which bilateral relations between their two countries have been strengthened of late, with Blair suggesting that Russian-British ties were at their warmest point in “many years.” As Britain’s Guardian newspaper pointed out, Blair backed this up by likening the 1999 bombings that killed 200 Russians–and which were used by Moscow to help justify the launching of a second Caucasus war–to the September 11 tragedy in the United States. “People sometimes forget there were hundreds killed in Moscow before September 11,” Blair was quoted as saying. The newspaper said that this reference left Putin appearing both surprised and grateful. Blair also continued the policy that has now been adopted by a number of Western governments of soft-pedaling criticism of Russian military operations in Chechnya. This, despite calls from human rights groups on the eve of Putin’s arrival for Blair to confront the Russian leader over reports of continuing abuses by Russian troops in the Caucasus.

The practical results of the December 21-22 visit by Putin were modest. The two sides agreed to create a joint working group to involve defense, intelligence and diplomatic personnel who will pool intelligence information on terrorism. The British side also pledged £12 million to help destroy Russian chemical weapons stocks. In addition, Blair pledged that London would offer “strong support” for Russian efforts to win membership in the World Trade Organization. Putin, meanwhile, announced that Moscow will hold an economic forum in London next April in order to “showcase” the strengths of Russia’s emerging economy.

Perhaps more important, Blair appeared also to underscore during Putin’s visit London’s intention of continuing to push for stronger Russia-NATO cooperation. Blair himself had to some degree launched this effort when, back in October, he sent a letter to Putin proposing the creation of a new Russia-NATO council in which Moscow would be treated as an equal with alliance member countries on certain security issues. The British proposal appeared initially to enjoy broad support and the backing of the Bush administration, but hawks within the U.S. Defense Department were reportedly responsible later for watering down the proposal and moving Russia-NATO cooperation onto a slower track. Blair suggested on December 21 that he would continue to push for acceptance by NATO members of the original proposal, which called for the creation of a Russia-North Atlantic council that would give Russia an equal voice in NATO deliberations on such issues as nonproliferation, peacekeeping and missile defense. How hard London will push for acceptance of this proposal, and whether it will bring the British government–and Russia–into conflict with the Bush administration, will become clear only in the months ahead. Details of the new cooperative relationship between Russia and NATO are to be established by May of this year. Putin, meanwhile, continued to insist in London that Russia is not striving to gain a veto power over decisions central to NATO’s mission.

Putin was equally measured in his December 21 comments on U.S. missile defense plans and the Bush administration’s announcement that it will withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. “We are not going to overdramatize the situation,” the Russian president was quoted as saying. “I hope the dialogue with all our partners will continue.” Moscow’s discomfort with the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty is shared by some European governments, including Britain’s, and for this reason the issue could yet cause some complications for the Bush Administration. Some Russian and Western commentators, meanwhile, are suggesting that Putin has tied Russia’s willingness to accede to U.S. wishes on this score to the West’s acceptance of a greater role for Moscow in NATO. Should the latter fail to materialize, those holding this view argue, the Russian government could yet revert to a harder line on missile defense and to threats that it will take military countermeasures as a response (Reuters, AP, Moscow Times, Interfax, December 21; Guardian, December 21-22, 2001).