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Financial Times: Blair and Putin in head-to-head talks but relations still strained

EXTRACT: One of the Russian issues near the top of the new prime minister’s in-tray will be the multi-billion dollar disputes involving BP and Royal Dutch Shell.

THE ARTICLE

By Jean Eagleshamin Heiligendamm
Published: June 9 2007 03:00 | Last updated: June 9 2007 03:00

Tony Blair warned that Anglo-Russian relations will not be repaired “any time soon”, after a difficult en-counter with Vladimir Putin yesterday failed to achieve a breakthrough.

The prime minister and Russian president talked head-to-head for 50 minutes – almost twice the scheduled time – after taking the unusual step of sending officials from the room. But they appeared to make no substantive progress on the various disputes that have plunged relations between London and Moscow to a post-cold war low.

“On a personal level it was perfectly cordial, but there are real issues [in contention] and I don’t think they’re going to be able to be resolved any time soon,” Mr Blair told reporters. The “very frank discussions” had covered “all the issues you’d expect us to go through – energy, Litvinenko [the former KGB officer murdered in London], missile defence, everything”.

But there was no sign that any of the UK’s concerns had been heeded. Asked if Mr Putin had listened to what the UK had to say, Mr Blair paused for a long time. Sounding frustrated, he then set out both sides’ seemingly irreconcilable positions.

The Russian president had complained that the west was not treating his country properly, Mr Blair said, while he had warned Mr Putin that: “People are becoming worried and fearful about what is happening in Russia and Russia’s external policies.”

Aides to Mr Blair, speaking to reporters as he flew home from the German summit last night, insisted it would have been unrealistic to expect substantive progress at the talks. “It wasn’t that kind of conversation,” Mr Blair’s spokesman said. “This was the prime minister giving his honest assessment [to Mr Putin] not grand-standing but saying to him, ‘what you’re doing, in terms of a variety of issues, is counter-productive’.”

The stand-off intensifies the political difficulty for Mr Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, of dealing with an increasingly intransigent Moscow after he assumes office later this month.

One of the Russian issues near the top of the new prime minister’s in-tray will be the multi-billion dollar disputes involving BP and Royal Dutch Shell. Aides refused to go into detail but confirmed that Mr Blair had raised with Mr Putin concerns about the investment climate for British companies in Russia.

Reacting to provocative suggestions by a Russian minister this week that Mr Blair was being “emotional” in warning that British companies might shun Russia if it did not reform, Mr Blair’s spokesman said “let’s leave the rhetoric out of it”.

While UK employers would “rightly” want to invest in Russia, “the reality is they are only going to do business if they believe commitments will be honoured”.

Officials confirmed that Mr Blair also raised Britain’s wish to extradite a former KGB agent over the fatal poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London last year – a request this month dismissed as “pure foolishness” by Mr Putin. Russia has yet to respond formally but is adamant its constitution would not allow any such extradition to proceed.

Mr Blair’s spokesman stressed Britain wanted a good relationship with Moscow and recognised the importance that. “Do we need to talk to Russia about issues such as Kosovo, Iran and energy supplies? Yes,” he said. But he warned the “boundaries of the relations” with Russia would be “determined by how Russia re-sponds” to British concerns.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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