A historic visit

Published : Aug 01, 2003 00:00 IST

British Prime Minister Tony Blair listens to Russian President Vladimir Putin at their media conference in London. - STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AP

British Prime Minister Tony Blair listens to Russian President Vladimir Putin at their media conference in London. - STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AP

Vladimir Putin's first state visit to Britain gives a boost to economic and strategic synergies between Moscow and London; it also represents the increasing interdependence in Europe.

THE recently concluded visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Britain, the first state visit by a Russian head of state since the 1874 visit by Tsar Alexander II, represents a geopolitical shift in European perceptions of a modern, resurgent Russia. The visit was not a mere diplomatic endeavour; it represented the pragmatic recognition by the First World of modern Russia's growing importance and of increasing European and Russian inter-dependence. Britain and the rest of Europe are at last ready to recognise the bear in their backyard, although a post-Soviet, modern bear in the safe hands of Putin.

Putin's arrival to a 21-gun salute, the banquet at the Buckingham Palace hosted by the Queen and the promenades in the picturesque Scotland assume special significance against the background of Prime Minister Tony Blair's rather lacklustre visit to Moscow, when Putin had then almost mocked Blair's firm support of the United States in its war against Iraq and hunt for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Under the circumstances, the grand reception accorded in Britain to Putin is a clear recognition of Russia's resurgence. This, to a degree, is because Putin is perceived as a sober leader who has succeeded in pulling Russia out of the economic and socio-political morass of the Yeltsin years and setting Russia firmly on the path of progress. Also, he is seen as a "westerniser". This fact became apparent during the May celebrations of 300 years of St. Petersburg, when Putin tried to re-assert Russia's European heritage and reopen its "window to Europe". In addition, Russia's political and economic clout has gone up considerably - the country is a member of the Group of Eight and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's (NATO) council of 20, and is crucial to the "anti-terrorism coalition". It is a known fact that Russia has massive natural resources in its eastern regions and a deep understanding of Central Asia as well as clout in Central Asian affairs, including international "Islamic fundamentalism". All these factors combine to make Russia very attractive to the West.

And more than anything else it is the dynamics of `energy' economics that have made Russia irresistible for Britain, the U.S. and Europe. Post-Soviet Russia has grown steadily after the collapse of 1998 following the initiation of reform measures such as tax cuts and the splitting up of state-controlled monopolies. The Russian economy is projected to expand by 5.4 per cent this year. This has helped create investor confidence. However, it is the lure of a stable supply of energy from the Siberian oilfields that has become a major attraction for the Western nations, especially since oil supplies from West Asia have become unstable after the Iraq war and in view of the latest developments in the Israel-Palestine issue. Britain is all set to become Russia's single biggest investor as it recognises Russia's potential to meet its energy import needs. Naturally, the economic dimensions of Putin's visit were prominent and the result is there for the world to see: British Petroleum (BP) inked a ground-breaking $6.75-billion 50-50 merger deal of its Russian assets with Tyumen Oil Co., a totally private business agreement committed under the benevolent gaze of Putin and Blair. This investment was preceded by another landmark deal announced this year, by Royal Dutch Shell, to invest $10 billion in the Sakhalin 2 oil and gas venture with an eye on Asian markets. In addition, Britain and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate in the construction of an undersea gas pipeline from the Baltic Sea through Europe to Britain. Currently, Anglo-Russian bonhomie seems "very needed and economically very viable", especially as Britain is poised to become a major energy and gas importer from 2005-06.

Setting economics aside, fresh synergy is building on the diplomatic, political and strategic fronts. Despite the damper cast by differing positions on the Iraq war, Russia and Britain seem to be moving towards bridging the gulf rather well. One major factor contributing to this is the close and rather warm chemistry existing between the two heads of state. Blair saw in Putin a reformer on the Western model and a man whose judgment he could rely on. It was Britain that helped further Russian ambitions in NATO; Russia has looked to Britain also for investment and for assistance vis-a-vis its relationship with Washington. It is largely due to this established bonhomie that Blair refrained from making any major comment on the Chechen situation this time round and Putin in turn softened his stance, at least on the surface, on the war on Iraq.

Moscow-based strategists are of the view that Putin's softening on the Iraq issue is a result of pragmatic considerations. This in turn has facilitated Putin's keen post-war efforts not to be muscled out of the peace arrangements under way in Iraq, which should be followed in the natural course by securing Russia's economic interests, both past and future. He has time and again asserted the Russian position that pre-war contracts with Iraq signed by various Russian entities, should be upheld by the provisional authority in that country. Putin is also actively lobbying for the repayment of Iraq's debts to Moscow totalling more than $8 billion. Putin has suggested that the international community's work in Afghanistan could be used as a model for the reconstruction of Iraq. He toned down on his earlier criticism of the West on the WMDs issue, but said that there should be "closure" on this issue because the weapons may fall into the hands of terrorists. He said that "if they existed, we need to know where they are and who has them, because they are a threat". The only divergent note was struck on Iran, with Putin insisting that Russia was not helping the proliferation of the dangerous nuclear economy. "We are against using the subject of Iran's potential nuclear programme as a way of squeezing Russian companies out of the Iranian market," he said.

Apart from its evident economic and strategic synergies, the visit has met with popular approval in Russia. This is especially significant as the presidential election is due next year in Russia. The high regard bestowed by Britain on Putin and his tete-a-tete with the Queen in an open-topped, horse-drawn carriage on the way to the Buckingham Palace have been lapped up by the home audience, which is warming up to his image as a world leader.

Ironically, Tsar Alexander II was invited to a state visit to Britain in the wake of his reformist efforts in liberating serfs. It then served as a stamp of European approval for the Russian home audience. Strangely, Putin also got his invitation after he made major reformist efforts. History comes full circle, peculiarly.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment