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Analysis & Opinion
02.11.09 Kiss And Make Up
Blog by Andrei Zolotov, Jr.

When David Miliband arrived in Moscow yesterday, his visit was heralded by both sides as an opportunity to “reset” relations. Borrowing a phrase from their relations with the United States, the Russians have heralded the visit as an opportunity to “reset” relations with Britain. But the British seem just a little more standoffish.

Britain does not hold half the hypnotic grip on the Russian imagination that the United States does. But anyone listening to the rhetoric surrounding British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s arrival in Moscow yesterday could be forgiven for thinking that another American was visiting. Borrowing directly from language coined by the U.S. secretary of state to describe the Barack Obama administration’s reaching out to Moscow, the Russian Ambassador to Britain Yuri Fedotov called the visit “a chance to reset our relationship” in an article for the Guardian.

Britain’s relationship with Russia is not a mirror of America’s - Russia has much stronger business and economic ties with the UK, for example - and the thorns in their sides are also slightly different. The United States tends to row with Russia about Georgia; for Britain, the sorest point is – and will probably continue to be – the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.

Nonetheless, the reset of either relationship is likely to follow the American pattern of trying to agree to disagree on the points of intractable contention, while emphasizing cooperation in whatever areas of common interest can be found, which in both cases are pretty much limited to Iran and Afghanistan. “It is not a breakthrough,” said Fydor Lukyanov, the editor in chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal, “as much as a return to ordinary business. The period of treating each other as if we were in the Cold War is finished. But it doesn’t mean we’re friends.”

Russian-British relations have been in the deep freeze since the autumn of 2007, when the former FSB officer and vocal Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko was murdered by polonium poisoning in London. His death kicked off a diplomatic row that resulted in a tit-for tat expulsion of diplomats, the suspension of cooperation between the two counties’ intelligence services, and the closure of the British Council’s offices in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg.

The Russian-Georgian war last August did nothing to improve matters - Miliband and his Russia counterpart Sergei Lavrov were even reported to have had a less than diplomatic exchange of opinions. And relations were further strained by a battle between the British and Russian shareholders of TNK-BP, the Anglo-Russian oil company. In short, said Lukyanov, “Relations between Russia and Britain have been at their worst since the end of the Cold War.”

Lavrov’s invitation to Miliband, and the Russian talk of a “reset” in relations, signifies a longstanding willingness, at least on the Russian side, to put those quarrels to rest. “There was always an attitude on the Russian side that we should forget the issue of Lugovoi and Litvinenko and move on,” noted Oksana Antonenko of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.

Britain has been noticeably more reluctant to normalize relations in the wake of that diplomatic spat. From the Russian point of view the decision to break off the relationship was a British one, and in some cases – the suspension of intelligence cooperation, for example – that is true. But although the British have avoided the kind of upbeat rhetoric coming from the Russian side, there does now seem to be some willingness to move forward. “The change of leadership in the United States, and the new momentum in Russia’s relationship with Europe and NATO, was leaving Britain a little on the sidelines,” said Antonenko.

At a press conference Monday neither Miliband nor Lavrov tried to overplay the common ground. Both spoke of their disagreement over the Litvinenko affair, and the only common ground they could really speak of was, predictably, on Iran and Afghanistan. And despite Miliband’s hailing of business and cultural ties between the two countries, the differences still run much deeper.

Because the two-year freeze in relations has coincided almost exactly with Miliband’s tenure at the British Foreign Office, some in Russia have accused him of having a personal vendetta against the country. His suggestion that Russia should change its Constitution to allow it to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the chief suspect in the Litvinenko murder, has gone down as a notorious example of Western arrogance. A change of personality, some suggest, could be the way forward. William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary who is likely to succeed Miliband after the British general election next year, recently made a speech suggesting that a conservative government would reach out to Russia.

There’s not much hope of that, however. For a start, Miliband probably does not have a vendetta against Russia (much of the criticism, it should be said, has been nothing but ill-disguised anti-Semitism), and his now notorious suggestion about changing the Constitution was probably intended as a way out of the impasse. “If anything, Miliband has been more pragmatic toward Russia than many,” said Antonenko.

Then there was the successive British government’s frosty attitude to the European Union, which is enough to illustrate that strong business ties are not enough to trump public opinion in political decision making. Britain’s business ties with Russia are much weaker than those with the EU, and the British press is even more unanimously suspicious of Russia than it is of Europe. The business lobby is unlikely to have a huge say in Whitehall’s approach to Russia.

Nor is the Litvinenko case going to go away. The fact that an act of nuclear terrorism could be carried out in London “shocked the British political elite to the core,” said Antonenko, and the inquest into the affair is likely to be concluded under the next – probably conservative – government. When it does, there is likely to be another outcry in the press, and no British government, whether labor or conservative, will be able to let the matter rest.
The source
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