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Daily Telegraph: What will Litvinenko murder charge cost Britain?

EXTRACT: Yesterday, Russia’s environment agency said that BP’s joint Russian venture, TNK-BP, could lose its licence to develop a giant Siberian gas field within the next few days. The same fate has already befallen Shell, which earlier this year was forced to surrender control of another oil field to Gazprom, the state energy giant.

Adrian Blomfield
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 23/05/2007

Worldstage: Moscow

Over the years, Tony Blair’s relationship with President Vladimir Putin has drawn sneers from Russian liberals and hard-liners alike. Mr Putin’s critics despise the Prime Minister for coddling their autocratic ruler, while pro-Kremlin hard-liners regard Britain as little more than an American satellite.

Over Georgian wine – banned by Russia because of Tbilisi’s pro-Western policies – a liberal academic told me that he was flummoxed by Britain’s response to the Litvinenko murder. The Crown Prosecution Service had sat on Scotland Yard’s report for nearly four months. To him, and many others, the silence suggested a cover-up – a sign that the British Government was desperate to smooth things over with the Kremlin.

Why, he wanted to know, was Tony Blair so limp-wristed when it came to dealing with Russia? “Don’t you know that Russians only respect strength,” he demanded.

When Mr Putin assumed power in January 2000, Mr Blair, more than any other Western leader, went out of his way to court him. They met five times in the first eight months of Putin’s presidency. Mr Blair wore his widest grin as the two men were pictured drinking vodka and playing snooker.

The camaraderie delighted the Kremlin. Other European leaders, particularly Jacques Chirac, had been bitterly critical of Mr Putin’s war in Chechnya, but Mr Blair seemed to share his view that the rebels were terrorists. Asked about the Russian’s autocratic tendencies, Mr Blair dutifully trotted out the official Kremlin line: “Russia needs a strong leader.”

Anglo-Russian relations blossomed, although some British diplomats were privately critical of what they saw as “sucking up” and wondered how Britain was benefiting from the cosiness.

Though the grins and photo opportunities persisted, the bonhomie was not to last. In 2002, Boris Berezovsky, once Russia’s most powerful tycoon, fled to Britain as Mr Putin cracked down on Yeltsin era oligarchs. Given Mr Blair’s compliance in most matters, the Kremlin confidently expected Britain to acquiesce when Russian demanded Mr Berezovsky’s extradition on embezzlement charges.

Things did not go according to plan. A British court ruled that the oligarch could not expect a fair trial in Russia and granted him political asylum. Mr Putin, apparently unable to believe that Mr Blair could not overrule the courts, was enraged. Although some contend that Mr Blair would have liked to oblige his chum, Mr Berezovsky’s refugee status has deeply soured relations between the two countries.

The cosiness started to slip. At a joint press conference in 2003, Mr Putin openly mocked Britain’s and America’s failure to find WMD in Iraq.

The Russian leader had also begun to forge close relationships with – in his eyes – more influential European leaders. Gerhard Schröder of Germany and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy seemed particularly happy to help Russia expand its energy presence in Europe.

But, although Moscow tends to dismiss Britain as an American lackey with dwindling international influence, London has retained a unique capacity to annoy. Britain’s ambassador to Moscow, Anthony Brenton, caused particular pique when he spoke at an opposition conference last year, a sin for which he has been subjected to a harassment campaign by pro-Kremlin youths ever since.

Other British interests, including the BBC’s Russia Service, the British Council and British energy companies, have been subject to similar intimidation.

Backed into a corner, Britain has seemed unsure of how to respond – an indecision that critics say only encourages the Kremlin.

Yesterday’s decision to bring murder charges against former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi could be taken as a sign that Britain is at last showing some mettle.

Yet many Russians, my liberal academic friend included, remain to be convinced.

Few here believe that Mr Lugovoi, if he was indeed involved, acted off his own bat. Russians want to know who the mastermind was. Renegade factions of the FSB, the KGB’s successor, exiled in London and seeking to discredit Mr Putin and the Kremlin itself, all remain suspects.

Yet the signal being sent from London, to the minds of many Russians, is that further investigations will not be pursued, in an attempt to mollify the Kremlin.

The Kremlin, however, is unlikely to be placated. Yesterday, Russia’s environment agency said that BP’s joint Russian venture, TNK-BP, could lose its licence to develop a giant Siberian gas field within the next few days.

The same fate has already befallen Shell, which earlier this year was forced to surrender control of another oil field to Gazprom, the state energy giant.

Britain may be Russia’s largest foreign investor, but it is casually being swept aside by an increasingly assertive administration that cares little what the West thinks of it.

As one British businessman put it: “The problem is they hold all the cards and we hold none.”
 
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2007/05/23/do2305.xml

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