Can Russia finally tempt the UK in from the cold?

By bne IntelliNews September 22, 2010

Tim Gosling in Moscow -

With Russia's ambassador in London Yury Fedotov set to leave to become the UN's new drug tsar, he spent early September speaking widely to the British media, saying Moscow is "prepared to do everything" to repair relations with the UK, suggesting that the two should put recent squabbles on the backburner and move forward with a more positive agenda.

However, even as Fedotov was packing his bags on September 13, he was given a reminder of the previous spats when a court in London adjourned, for a second time and without offering a reason, an extradition hearing for Yevgeny Chichvarkin, the former owner of the Evroset electronics retail chain who fled to the UK in 2008 after being accused of kidnapping, amongst other charges.

The two countries have been stuck in a rut for several years. During his media blitz, Fedotov was keen to repeat an offer to British investigators to take part in a trial of Andrei Lugovoi - whom UK security services accuse of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 - in Russia, saying that the ball is now in London's court.

Moscow has made huge strides in mending fences with the West since the global economic crisis convinced it that it needs help - investment and technology for the most part - with modernising its economy. A concerted drive in foreign policy has seen President Dmitry Medvedev move from munching burgers with US President Barack Obama to opening military cooperation with the US, whilst closer ties with the EU were cemented at a summit in Moscow earlier this year. Even post-communist states such as Poland - at the forefront of antagonism with Russia over the last decade - have moved much closer. However, a date at a fish and chip shop for Medvedev with UK Prime Minister David Cameron still looks some way off.

New partners

Moscow has made no secret of its hopes that the election of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition could lead to improved relations after the Labour government - which was in power during Russia's 2008 war with Georgia, the Litvinenko case and the tussle over control of the UK-Russian oil firm TNK-BP - lost the general election.

Cameron visited Moscow in May, with Foreign Secretary William Hague - who has said the UK wants to "open a new page" in relations - due to follow in his footsteps soon. However, as Lilit Gevorgyan, a London-based analyst for IHS Global Insight puts it: "All the right words were said, but there is no real improvement in ties."

The difficulties in the relationship are contradictory in many ways. One the one hand, the UK is both one of the largest members of the EU and closest allies of the US, as well as a prominent member of international institutions alongside Russia such as the UN Security Council and the G8. Its concerns in securing Russian cooperation on issues such as Iran or Afghanistan are as pressing as any. At the same time, the UK is the largest foreign investor in Russia, whilst prominent Russian businessmen and even officials have flocked to London to buy property and put their children in schools.

Yet, the gulf between commercial and cultural ties on the one hand, and political relations on the other, appears unbridgeable as long as the pair fail to shift their focus from the diplomatic spats.

Top of the agenda is extradition. Russia currently has over 40 extradition requests lodged with the UK, featuring a mix of anti-Kremlin oligarchs accused of economic crimes, Chechen terrorist suspects, and "common criminals wanted for drug dealing, hijacking and money laundering," according to Fedotov, although he adds that Russia's irritation is lessening as time passes.

However, the UK insists that it cannot legally extradite these figures because it does not believe in the independence of Russia's legal system. The same objection inspires its rejection of Moscow's offer over Lugovoi.

Gevorgyan suggests there are additional antagonisms on either side that help prevent a refocusing of relations. On the one hand, she sees the virulent British media playing a role, its negative take on Russia not helped by "rather limited press coverage from Russia or the CIS compared to other parts of the world."

On the other side, Russia appears to sideline the UK due to its closeness to Washington. "Russia tends to regard Britain as an auxiliary to the US, and leaves issues of strategic importance to US-Russia dialogue."

In a similar fashion, it's probably no coincidence that Germany and France enjoy the strongest ties to Moscow amongst EU states.

The challenge for both London and Moscow is to move relations into other areas, as a solution to the outstanding issues between the two is highly unlikely without a political agenda mapped out in advance.

Fedotov hints that Moscow now holds the same view, telling the BBC: "We should not over blow the importance of such incidents," he suggested. "We need to think strategically... We are not in opposing trenches. We face the same challenges and threats."

He even claims that Moscow is ready to look past the "irritants" that have prevented the reset in relations. "They are kind of put into mental square brackets. We know they are there, but they are not irritating us as much as they did two or three years ago."

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