David Cameron has called for Russia to redouble its efforts to stamp out corruption and said there would be no let-up in UK demands for the extradition of the man suspected of killing a Russian spy in the UK.
In a speech to Moscow State University, Cameron broadly broached some uncomfortable issues for the two countries but his tone was conciliatory. He said he wanted to “rebuild” the relationship and put an end to the “tit-for-tat” behaviour of the two countries.
He said: “I accept that Britain and Russia have had a difficult relationship for some time. And we should be candid about the areas where we still disagree. But I want to make the case for a new approach based on co-operation.”
There were “sceptics” in both countries, he said, “who will doubt whether we can ever get beyond the competitive ideological instincts of our past”, but he said he would take on those groups.
The prime minister has arrived in Moscow for a one-day bout of intense diplomacy, and will be afforded the first face-to-face contact for a British prime minister with the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, since 2007. His speech is intended to begin a modest rapprochement between the two countries, with officials acknowledging there remains an “impasse” on many major issues.
Relations have been strained since the murder in London in 2006 of the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko and the Russian government’s refusal to extradite the man Britain suspects of the murder, Andrei Lugovoi, now state deputy in the Russian parliament.
In his speech on Monday morning, Cameron tackled this head on for the first time on Russian soil. He said: “Our approach is simple and principled. When a crime is committed, that is a matter for the courts. It is their job to examine the evidence impartially and to determine innocence or guilt. The accused has a right to a fair trial. The victim and their family have a right to justice.
“It is the job of governments to help courts to do their work and that will continue to be our approach.”
Cameron had also been under pressure to mention human rights infringements, including the fate of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and the prosecution of the former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, but made no reference to them in his speech.
The government insists relations between the two countries could be more cordial than they currently are and the emphasis is on improving conditions for business.
On Sunday four former British foreign secretaries wrote to the Sunday Times to urge Cameron to caution in this area, saying corruption was still rife in Russia.
Travelling with the prime minister is Bob Dudley, CEO of BP, and an exemplar of the constraints on British and Russian businesses attempting to operate in the country.
On 31 August court officials raided BP’s Moscow office in connection with a lawsuit, one day after BP’s rival – the US oil firm Exxon Mobil – struck a deal with the Russian state-owned company Rosneft for an Arctic exploration.
Cameron tackled this in his speech: “I’ve talked to many British businesses. I have no doubt about their ambition to work in Russia … but it’s also clear that the concerns that continue to make them hold back are real.
“They need to know that they can go to a court confident that a contract will be enforced objectively … and that their assets and premises won’t be unlawfully taken away from them. In the long run the rule of law is what delivers stability and security.”
UK goods exports to Russia are already worth £3.5bn, up 50% in the last year and, according to officials, growing by almost another two-thirds in the first half of this year.
By the end of the trip, Downing Street hopes £215m worth of trade deals will have been struck – part of its attempt to galvanise inward investment in the UK and boost an export-led recovery. The prime minister said Britain would support Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organisation.
He also acknowledged the different perspectives between the two countries over UN action in Libya. Russia feels the UK and France went beyond the remit of UN resolution 1973.
In his speech, Cameron said: “Let me put my cards on the table. The view I have come to is that the stability of corrupt and violently repressive dictatorships in Middle Eastern states like Gaddafi’s in Libya is false stability.
“The transition to democracy may well have its difficulties and dangers … but it is the best long-term path to peaceful progress … and is a powerful alternative to the poisonous narrative of Islamist extremism.
“And I believe that Britain and Russia – and the whole international community – have a role to play in helping to support peace, stability and security across the Arab world.”
Despite Cameron’s words, a Russian newspaper on Sunday reported a top Kremlin aide as saying no “reset” loomed, a reference to the word used by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to describe recent US attempts to restart their relations with Russia.
The aide, Sergei Prikhodko, a top foreign policy adviser to the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, said: “I think that the visit will be pragmatic and calm. No one is expecting any breakthroughs, and in fact they are not needed. Why fight? It is not necessary for us to have a reset with Britain. We will continue to work the way that we have been working in the past.”
Describing his first visit to the country, Cameron said: “I first came to Russia as a student on my gap year between school and university in 1985. I took the Trans-Siberian railway from Nakhodka to Moscow and went on to the Black Sea coast. There two Russians – speaking perfect English – turned up on a beach mostly used by foreigners.
“They took me out to lunch and dinner and asked me about life in England and what I thought about politics. When I got back I told my tutor at university and he asked me whether it was an interview. If it was, it seems I didn’t get the job! My fortunes have improved a bit since then. So have those of Russia.”
He finished his speech by appearing to make a link between the two periods. “In the last 20 years Russia and Britain have both come a long way but each largely on their own. In the next 20 years I believe we can go very much further as we prove that ‘Вместе мы сильнее’ [we are stronger together].”