Dept of Politics | Additional Content | Edwin Bacon interviewed on UK-Russia relations
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Global Insider: U.K.- Russia Relations By The Editors

British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Moscow last week, where he met with Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In an email interview, Edwin Bacon, a reader in comparative politics at the University of London, Birkbeck, discussed U.K.-Russia relations.

WPR: What has been the nature of U.K.-Russian trade and diplomatic relations from the post-Cold War period until today?

Edwin Bacon: In the immediate post-Cold War years, U.K.-Russian relations flourished, marked by reciprocal state visits in 1994 and 2003. When Vladimir Putin became Russia's president in 2000, he singled out the U.K. as a key European partner. The U.K. was Russia's fourth-largest foreign investor, and Putin saw in British Prime Minister Tony Blair a young leader, like himself, who could facilitate relations with both Europe and the United States. Blair, perhaps ill-advisedly, took the unusual step of visiting Putin in March 2000 two weeks before the presidential election -- a gesture of support returned when Putin made London his first Western port of call after becoming president. Beyond high politics, London -- nicknamed Londongrad -- seemed to act like a magnet for Russians, notably the very wealthy.

WPR: What caused the recent tensions in bilateral relations, and what has the impact been, both diplomatically and in terms of trade?

Bacon: Around 2005, bilateral diplomatic relations between London and Moscow plummeted. Russia sought the extradition of a number of figures wanted on criminal charges and granted asylum in the U.K., including former Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Akhmed Zakayev, former Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky and former KGB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko. When Litvinenko died of radioactive poisoning in 2006, tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions followed, as the U.K. sought the extradition of the chief suspect, amid media speculation that the Russian state might have been implicated in the killing. Throw in mutual claims of espionage activity, arguments over visa regimes, the raiding of British Council offices in Russia, the regular harassment of the British ambassador to Moscow by a Kremlin-supported youth organization, problem upon problem for high-profile U.K. companies operating in Russia, such as BP and Hermitage Capital, and it's fair to say that bilateral relations were poor.

Trade was affected negatively but still continued to be important for both sides, with more than 600 U.K. companies active in Russia, and Russian companies accounting for about a quarter of foreign initial public offerings on the London Stock Exchange. U.K.-Russian relations also occur multilaterally, through the European Union, NATO, the Group of Eight and other forums. Although difficulties have existed in Russia's relations with all these bodies, within them useful day-to-day cooperation continued without specific U.K.-Russian problems coming to the fore.

WPR: What is driving the effort to improve ties, and what are the prospects for better relations?

Bacon: Sometimes international disputes hit a brick wall. The choice is either to let that wall block relations or to go around it and carry on. Neither the U.K. nor Russia will move on extraditions, nor will either fully accept the role of legal barriers to extradition. Practically, there is little to be gained on either side by dwelling on disagreements. British Prime Minister David Cameron's recent visit to Moscow sought to draw a line under previous disputes and look forward. Although concrete achievements were minor -- signing trade deals worth $315 million and symbolic memorandums on cooperation -- the hope is that this marks a point from which ongoing improvements in military, trade and diplomatic cooperation can prosper. Given the starting point, there is reason for optimism that relations can improve. However, barriers to common understanding, particularly in the mutually distorted media portrayals of each country, will continue to undermine the mood of relations.