It is a fascinating footnote to the cold war: did the KGB try to recruit David Cameron? Speaking at Moscow State University today, the PM recalled how two young Russians “speaking perfect English” approached him during his gap-year trip to Russia in 1985. The venue was a Black Sea beach. “They took me out to lunch and dinner and asked me about life in England and what I thought about politics,” Cameron said, remembering his shadowy KGB friends.
It’s hard to know what Vladimir Putin – Russia’s PM and pre-eminent leader – would have made of Cameron’s ice-breaking anecdote. Probably he wouldn’t have been amused. Of course Cameron had another close encounter with the KGB today when he had talks with Putin – while Cameron was at Oxford, enjoying the Bullingdon Club, Putin was a Soviet spy based in the unglamorous East German town of Dresden.
It is often forgotten that UK-Russian relations were once positive. Indeed, one of Putin’s biggest fans was Tony Blair. After succeeding Boris Yeltsin in 2000, Putin’s first trip abroad was to Britain. Russia’s new, enigmatic president called into No 10 for talks. He even met the Queen at Windsor Castle.
Blair robustly defended his guest in the face of criticism of the Kremlin’s second war in Chechnya and human rights abuses. He hailed Putin as a strong partner who would bring order to the process of political and economic reform. After a successful bilateral meeting in November 2000, one Russian official even remarked: “We cannot remember a time when Anglo-Russian relations were better, not even before the revolution.”
This is the first time Putin has deigned to receive anyone from the British government since 2007. Previously he has snubbed any approach. Cameron also held a friendly meeting with Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president. The mood music was warm – Medvedev even addressed Cameron using the informal “you” form in Russian.
Neither London nor Moscow, though, appears under any illusions that Cameron’s one-day trip is likely to bring any breakthrough in relations. There is still no prospect of a return to the halcyon era of a decade ago – before Iraq, before the colour revolutions in Kiev and Tbilisi, and before the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. Some will have forgotten that Cameron flew to Tbilisi to show support to Georgia’s embattled leader, Mikheil Saakashvili. But not Putin.
The reasons for this long mutual estrangement are well known. For the British, there is the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, seemingly carried out by a troika of ex-KGB agents, one of whom, Andrei Lugovoi, has been named as prime suspect. For the Russians there is the vexed issue of mutual legal assistance and extradition. I once asked Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, when the problems between the UK and Russia began. His answer was precise: 2003 – the year British courts granted asylum to Boris Berezovsky, Putin’s enemy number one.
But it is the Litvinenko case that is the insuperable obstacle. At his press conference with Medvedev Cameron tried to avoid getting bogged down in the scandal. But he made clear that Britain is unwilling to resume co-operation with the FSB, the successor agency of the KGB – of which Putin once was the boss. British officials remain convinced Litvinenko’s killing had an FSB dimension. Lugovoi, meanwhile, continues to enjoy Putin’s personal support, and sits as a deputy for the misleadingly named, and anti-British, Liberal Democrats.
The FSB remains Russia’s most powerful agency: a vast, secret organisation devoted to (re)fighting the ideological battles of the cold war. (I should know. In February the agency deported me from Moscow. My crime? Officially, not having collected my press card; in reality reporting on themes – Putin’s alleged “secret assets” abroad, for example – the Kremlin considers taboo.) Many of its recruits are thuggish; others more like the charming and inquisitive Russians Cameron met.
Until Britain caves into the FSB’s co-operation demand, relations between London and Moscow will remain strained. And time is on Russia’s side. Most observers expect Putin to return to the presidency during elections in 2012, elbowing Medvedev aside. It is entirely possible he will still be in power in 2020, long after Cameron and his coalition have faded into history.