The saga of the fatal poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB officer, becomes ever more convoluted. Whoever the assassins were, traces of polonium, the substance used to kill him, lead inexorably back to Moscow. The affair is set to complicate already frayed ties between Britain and Russia.
It is an extraordinary transformation in the mood that prevailed when Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 and Tony Blair rushed to St Petersburg to accept the acting Russian president’s invitation to the opera. As Mr Putin had not even been elected at the time, many felt the British prime minister’s gesture showed an indecent haste to be his best buddy.
The relationship today is like that of jilted lovers, but it goes deeper. Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, warns that British “politicisation” of the Litvinenko affair may damage bilateral relations. On the other side, the British media are revelling in the revival of a good old spy scandal, with a chance to write lots of anti-Russian stories.
Yesterday the FT revealed that Tony Brenton, British ambassador to Moscow, has been subject to a campaign of public harassment by young Russian nationalists, closely linked to the Kremlin, for the past four months. The British Council, the cultural arm of the UK government, is being hounded by Russian inspectors, first for tax and now over fire regulations. BBC broadcasts to Russia are being disrupted. It is ominously like the bad old days of the cold war.
Yet behind such sorry tales of unreconstructed attitudes and petty bullying lies another transformation: the emergence of London as a magnet for newly rich Russians. No one knows how many there are (they no longer have to register at the Russian embassy), but the guesstimate is about 250,000. They are Russian-speakers, even if not all are Russian citizens.
They are certainly not all fierce critics of the Kremlin. The vast majority are very happy with Mr Putin, because of the stability and prosperity he has brought them. Most come to London to spend their money, to shop in the West End, to buy property in Hampstead and to send their children to British boarding schools and universities.
It seems thoroughly perverse that diplomatic relations should be so bad, when personal exchanges between citizens have become so much easier. Yet that is part of the problem, compounding a prickly old relationship between the two erstwhile empires that goes way back before the communist revolution.
“There is a collective historical memory that goes back at least to the ‘Great Game’,” says one distinguished Russian academic in the UK, a second-generation emigré. “It is amazing how it lives on in the Russian psyche.” That was the great 19th-century competition between the British and Russian empires for power in central Asia. The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan was a grim reminder, but now there is schadenfreude in Moscow at the sight of British troops getting bogged down in the same place.
That may have been the start, but throughout Soviet years the British relationship proved particularly prickly. Joseph Stalin hated seeing the Union Flag flying over the British embassy across the Moscow river from the Kremlin and swore he would make the UK residence relocate. In later years, the KGB feared the British were listening to their leaders’ conversations. But Margaret Thatcher persuaded Mikhail Gorbachev to let the embassy remain where it is.
Britain was responsible for the largest-ever expulsion of Soviet spies, with 105 kicked out in 1971. There was always a tit-for-tat, although on that occasion the Russians could not find enough British suspects to expel. It happened again in 1985 and in 1989.
Yet during the cold war, it was all rather predictable and orchestrated. One spied and, if one was caught, one paid the price. No hard feelings. Today it is more murky, more vicious and less predictable. It is about money and power rather than ideology.
Two things really damaged the early love affair between Mr Blair and Mr Putin. The first was Iraq, when the Russian leader ostentatiously joined Jacques Chirac of France and Germany’s Gerhard Schröder to oppose the US and UK plans. Mr Blair took it personally.
The second was the granting of asylum in 2003 to two leading enemies of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky, the exiled oligarch, and Akhmed Zakayev, a Chechen separatist spokesman. It remains a huge bone of contention in bilateral relations. Mr Putin raises it every time he meets Mr Blair. Russian officials cannot accept that such decisions are legal rather than political. They produced badly drafted extradition applications that failed. They do not understand the British concept of the rule of law.
That brings us back to the Russians in London. “We see Britain as a soft touch,” says one, “especially if you are not going to be a burden on the taxpayer.” But there are more solid reasons why they come. It is about the nature of British law, based not on concepts of human rights but on property rights. In Russia, there is no security of property even today. No wonder London is a magnet for the newly rich. The trouble is, they do not seem to tell Mr Putin that it is precisely because of the rule of law in London that they find it so attractive. If he could understand what that means, relations might be a whole lot better.
The writer, an FT columnist, was Moscow correspondent 1988-91
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