You can argue until the cows come home why Russia and Britain should be better friends: Russia is a serious emerging market with 140 million consumers; its the largest exporter of oil, and largest of exporter of gas to Europe (although not to the UK); there are 600 British companies operating in Russia, with £3.5bn of exports and over £2bn of invisibles. Moscow wants a financial services sector, and Britons facing the prospect of a double dip recession, certainly need the business.
Nor do the reasons to be cheerful stop there: there always has been a deep mutual affinity with, and knowledge of, each other’s culture, history and literature. The Chekhov produced regularly on the London stage feels almost as familiar to British eyes as Shakespeare. But this particular affinity keeps on reproducing itself. Russia is, for instance, the beloved venue of British modern fiction writers from Le Carre to Amis.
The mutual attraction is well documented, but all of it lies well below the level of intergovernmental relations. And it is here that the real challenge lies. Saying the two countries should be friends and acting like friends are two different things. Vladimir Putin is regarded by most British analysts as the next president of Russia, and even if another formula is found, he will remain the man at the fulcrum of competing interests in the ruling elite. And yet it has been four years since anyone in the British government has talked to him.
Its not a rocket science. The potholes in the relationship in this period have been so deep - Litvinenko’s murder, Britain’s refusal to extradite Boris Berezovsky and Ahmed Zakayev, the British Council affair - that no amount of imported tarmac can smooth the path.
What re-engagement there has been - and everyone agrees it falls far short of the reset button that America pressed - has been engineered through the mercurial personality and status of Dmitry Medvedev. Having initially talked up his role as a reformer, realism has set in minds of senior British officials. It is not just that the existence of the tandem makes Medvedev’s position inherently unfavorable. It is also his manner which compounds his weakness. Talking big while achieving little is not the best platform for a second term as president. Putin on the other hand does what he says. As Medvedev’s stock falls, and he is taken less and less seriously as a prospect for 2012, his value as the sole point of contact falls with it.
So David Cameron’s first task is to establish a relationship with Vladimir Putin. It will not however be a repeat of Tony Blair’s doomed attempts to establish a personal relationship, with its assumption that personal relations can trump competing political ones. Litvinenko, the Georgian war and Russia’s interpretation of its role in its near abroad, the rule of law, human rights and civil society all cast a long shadow over any attempt by the two leaders to gaze into each other’s eyes. Nor would they want to. With two elections and an important political transition looming, the political elite in Russia is entering a period of lockdown. Stability in foreign relations is at a premium. So no surprises, please. And the same logic pertains on the British side, although there are different reasons for this: the turmoil of the Arab Spring, the prospect of recession, war fatigue in Afghanistan. There are bigger fish to fry, right now.
So, as British officials say, we are going into this with open eyes. There are risks involved, but there are also risks of not getting involved, particularly for large commercial contracts. The three goals of Cameron’s mission are to establish a successful channel of communication, support and reinforce the position of the UK economy in Russia and campaign for the rule of law and reform in Russia. For a bilateral visit of this rarity, the first two priorities on this list are not particularly ambitious, and no-one is holding out any hope for the third. But it is nonetheless important for both sides that this visit takes place. How would one sum up such a relationship between two such governments? As one senior member of the former Yugoslavia summed up his government’s relationship to Moscow: correct but insincere.