Britain and Russia look to cement ties

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

  • Published

Britain is proposing to develop a dialogue with Russia about international terrorism - but without the Russian Security Service, the FSB.

Image caption,
Alexander Litvinenko died of polonium poisoning in 2006

This could be likened to putting on Hamlet without the Prince.

Britain has cut links with the FSB since the murder in London in 2006 of Alexander Litvinenko, who died of polonium poisoning. Russia has refused to extradite the main suspect, a former Russian security agent and now member of the Russian parliament, Andrei Lugovoi. The confrontation remains deadlocked.

The security proposal will be discussed during a visit to London on Monday and Tuesday by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The idea is to talk generally about how to prevent terrorism. Both countries are hosting Olympic Games, for example, Britain the summer games next year and Russia the winter games in 2014.

'More to be done'

However, Mr Lavrov does not seem that impressed so far. In an interview with the BBC Moscow bureau in advance of his visit, he said: "Our British colleagues [have] said... they would be interested in continuing counter-terrorist co-operation, and this is impossible without co-operating with the FSB because it is the leading agency in Russia on counter-terrorism."

However, he noted that "both sides are losing" and that the recent Moscow airport bombing was "another reminder that we have to do more".

Image caption,
Mr Lavrov highlighted historical examples of British-Russian co-operation

The British Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to visit Moscow this year and the ground is now being prepared for that.

One result could be the re-establishment of a British serious and organised crimes liaison unit in Moscow, which was withdrawn post-Litvinenko. This concentrated more on crime and drugs than international terrorism. Britain is also inviting Alexander Khloponin, Moscow's special envoy for the North Caucasus, to come to London to discuss anti-terrorism policies.

It is part of a plan by British diplomats to develop a more polite and practical dialogue with an important world player, while trying to ignore the elephant in the room. The fact is that Russia is too big a power for the UK to boycott, not least because of the huge British investment in Russia, highlighted by the recent BP oil agreement there.

Russia appears more than willing to encourage this approach. Mr Lavrov reached back into history for examples of co-operation overcoming difference: "That was the case in 1812-1815 during the Napoleonic wars, that was the case during World War I, during World War II and we now have international terrorism as something which challenges all of us."

On another difficult issue, visas, little progress is expected. Britain continues its restrictive policy while Russia wants a much more open system with Europe as a whole.

There is a hint on the British side that they want to use any security talks to encourage Russia to go down the path of greater social and legal liberalism.

However, nobody in Britain or any other Western country has any expectations that this will happen. Russian authorities took a decision after the Ukrainian Orange Revolution six years ago to tighten their control over society, and the recent uprising in Egypt will no doubt be a reminder to them that this is not the time to loosen their grip.