Kremlin Finds a Downing Street Ally
The following article appeared in the Russia
Journal of April 24. We are reprinting it to acquaint our readers of the
analysis of Vladimir Putins visit to Britain from a Russian
President-elect Vladimir Putin has just made his first visit
to the West as Russian head of state. The visit took him to London and to
Minsk, Kiev and Sevastopol as well. The visit also took place before the
inauguration, despite the fact that Putin had said he wouldnt set foot
out of Russia before officially taking office.
But the Kremlin considered that Putins convincing
election victory allowed him to take the initiative and at the same time, to
forge new relations in Europe and break down old stereotypes.
Russias main ally abroad is now London. Putin and
high-ranking officials in his entourage consider British Prime Minister Tony
Blair the most stable politician in the West unlike French President
Jacques Chirac or German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
The Germans are having the hardest time in Moscow at the
moment. This is not only because of Schroeders shaky situation, but also
because of German businesses discontent and rather hard-line stance taken
since they were dealt a blow by Russias 1998 financial crisis. Also,
Germany has been more critical than other Western countries of Putins
North Caucasus policies. Even more critical than the United States, which at
the moment is not Russias favourite place.
U.S. leaders are, however, slowly beginning to give Putin
more attention. U.S. President Bill Clinton announced that he will drop in on
Russia on his way to a summit in Okinawa. But relations between Russia and
Washington and between Russia and the West in general are in need of an
The Kremlin decided that London will be this intermediary.
In any case, after Blairs unofficial visit to Putin in St. Petersburg
before the elections, the new Russian president owed the English something in
return. Both Putin and his entourage see things this way.
Putin received a hospitable welcome in London. Kremlin
protocol officials and Russian delegation members said that they "had
never found it so easy to work in the West as on this occasion with the
The British side had prepared a full-on programme for Putin
and his wife. But the Russians decided to make the visit a strictly working
one, hence Putins wife did not come along; and cultural events were
restricted to a tour of London, though that didnt take place in the end
for lack of time.
Most of Putins time in London was spent in
discussions with Blair. In public, the two leaders appeared to have complete
mutual understanding and looked happy with each other. Blair was positively
beaming as he played his role of Putins guide in the complex world of
Not even differences over Chechnya could dampen the
friendly atmosphere of the visit. Blair was careful to point out that, while
the United Kingdom did not like the war in Chechnya, a pragmatic approach to
the issue was needed. "We mustnt isolate Russia as some countries
propose. On the contrary, we must engage Russia in dialogue," Blair said.
This made Putin happy. He made it clear that Russia is not
going to go into self-isolation and is prepared to listen to the West if the
West takes the road of negotiations rather than issuing ultimatums.
The earnestness with which Blair and Putin, both cunning
diplomats, played along to each other didnt go unnoticed. Observers noted
that not only Russia wanted to show the changes in its foreign policy
priorities, Britain did as well. The United Kingdom, it seems, has decided
its time to step out from the shadows of the United States and Germany.
But beyond the excellent official reaction to Putins
London visit was another, not-so-pleasant unofficial reaction.
No matter how impressive Putin was during the visit, no
matter how elegantly he dressed, for Westerners he remains "a KGB
agent" and this lends a negative shade to their assessment.
Putin doesnt like being called an "agent"
and points out that his rank was higher than that. At one moment, his annoyance
did spill over in London.
During a press conference, a British journalist didnt
hesitate to bring up Putins KGB past and linked it to his present
policies in Chechnya.
Putin reacted sharply, raising his voice and explaining
that the Russian army was fighting an international evil terrorism
on its own territory. His words were eloquent, but the only ultimate
effect was to demonstrate that Putin is not a fish and can feel strong emotion.
Putin didnt manage to convince either Western or
Russian journalists with his words. But perhaps by showing this kind of
openness, he went some way toward breaking down the image of an
"agent," creating instead the new image of a politician ready to
continue liberal reforms in Russia despite the countrys domestic
Putin tried to emphasise his ability to be at ease in high
society when meeting with Queen Elizabeth II. Putin and the queen spent longer
than the planned hour together over tea in Windsor palaces oak hall.
Their conversation was personal in nature. Just afterward, Putin talked happily
about his meeting with the queen, like a little boy just stepped for a while
into a fairy tale.