Is it time for the UK to forgive Russia?

Theresa May ‘considering meeting Putin’ in bid to thaw diplomatic relations

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin 

Theresa May is poised to meet with Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of this month’s G20 summit in Japan, in an attempt to reset a diplomatic relationship described by the Russian president as “deadlocked”.

Putin spoke of the need to end the stalemate between Britain and Russia after approaching May informally at a G20 meeting in Argentina in November. However, the last time the two leaders sat down together on a formal basis was in 2015.

UK-Russian relations have deteriorated significantly following the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury in March 2018, which resulted in tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions by both nations.

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So could May’s last few weeks as prime minister see an end to the standoff?

What is the state of relations between the two countries?

Icy. The Skripal case resulted in 23 Russian diplomats being kicked out of the UK, followed by the expulsion of a similar number of British diplomats from Russia, reports The Guardian’s diplomatic editor, Patrick Wintour. The loss of diplomats has severely hampered each nation’s efforts to analyse the other.

Why are relations so bad?

Russia has still not accepted responsibility for the novichok nerve agent poisonings in the Wiltshire city of Salisbury last year, which left former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia severely ill, and resulted in the death of British citizen Dawn Sturgess.

The other main issue causing tensions is the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines jet MH17 in July 2014. Ten British citizens lost their lives in the attack, which the UK believes was carried out using a Russian missile.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea is also a diplomatic problem for the UK and its allies.

How can these tensions be resolved?

Most experts believe it is “unrealistic” to hope Russia might accept responsibility for the Skripal poisoning, says The Guardian’s Wintour. Nor is it likely that the two Russian military intelligence officers suspected by the UK of the crime will be extradited to face charges.

The “maximum likely to be offered” is a general acknowledgement that overseas attacks of that kind “should not happen”, claims Wintour. Putin may have been gesturing in this direction earlier this month, when he told Russian reporters that there was “a need to finally turn this page linked to spies and assassination attempts”.

It is harder to see how MH17 can be negotiated, however.

Is a rapprochement likely under May’s leadership?

The Times reports that Downing Street is “considering” a G20 encounter but will go ahead “only if there is a defined purpose to the meeting”. A “common agenda must be achievable”, agrees The Guardian’s Wintour, who asks whether Putin might “prefer to try to turn a new page with the UK with a new prime minister”.

What happens if Tory leadership favourite Boris Johnson takes charge?

Johnson has form with Russia, having been “sharply critical” of the superpower’s actions in Syria when he was foreign secretary, says Wintour. The Times notes that he had a “fractious” relationship with the country, cancelling his first planned visit at the behest of the US and “clashing publicly” with his Russian counterpart when he did go.

In his first interview since he declared his candidacy in the Tory leadership contest, Johnson “boasted” of his role in persuading the UK’s allies to expel Russian spies working undercover as diplomats, the newspaper adds.

On the other hand, the former London mayor has proven flexible on big issues in the past.

What would be the benefits of a better relationship?

Putin’s main reason for wanting a rapprochement is believed to be to protect Russia’s business interests. He said last month: “We have $22bn worth of British investment. These people want to feel secure. They would a positive trend in relations to emerge. We treat them as friends, whose interests must be protected regardless of the current political situation.”

On a separate note, says Wintour, cooperation is also needed between the two nations’ intelligence agencies “so that signals, such as troop movements, are not misread”.

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