Judo diplomacy: Cameron grapples with Putin

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Diplomacy, Putin style
Diplomacy, Putin style

Vladimir Putin says he will work with David Cameron and other western leaders to secure a "viable solution" to the situation in Syria.

The Russian president, now in his third term in the Kremlin, was lured to Britain for his first visit to Downing Street in nearly a decade by the prospect of watching his beloved judo at the Olympics.

Cameron met with Putin in No 10 before the pair travelled to the ExCeL centre in west London, where the prime minister attempted to distract the former St Petersburg judo champion with talk of human rights, Syria and trade.

"While of course there have been some differences in the positions we've taken over the Syrian conflict, we both want to see an end to that conflict and a stable Syria and we'll continue to discuss with our foreign ministers how can take this agenda forward," Cameron said after the meeting in Downing Street.


Putin was full of praise for the Olympic Games opening ceremony, calling them "a wonderful feast presented by you to mankind".

On Syria, the Russian president added: "We made note of the fact that there are some things on which we see eye-to-eye, and we agreed to continue working to find a viable solution on that matter.

"We agreed to entrust our foreign affairs ministries to go on with that search for a viable solution."

The trip was viewed as an opportunity for both sides to continue the tentative thaw in relations between London and Moscow in the last five years. Putin pointed out mutual trade has increased by up to 40% in the last two years.

But intelligence cooperation remains suspended after the death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who accused Putin of responsibility for his poisoning on his deathbed.

Both Russian and British diplomats appreciate the importance of trading links between the two countries. Cameron will have had to be sensitive as he raised the UK's human rights concerns - like the trial of punk protest group Pussy Riot and Russia's rough treatment of foreign businesses, including the branding of non-governmental organisations in Russia as 'foreign agents'.

"Mr Putin is famously a judo black belt but that shouldn't stop David Cameron grappling with him on Russia's deeply unhelpful behaviour over Syria at the United Nations security council," Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia director John Dalhuisen said before the meeting.

"David Cameron should politely - but firmly - tell it like it is on the Pussy Riot case: the trial is a disgrace and the charges should be dropped immediately."

The band went on trial this week after staging a protest in Moscow's main cathedral.

It is Moscow's attitude to the conflict in Syria which will have generated the most tension, however.

Russia, which has enjoyed a close alliance with Bashar al-Assad's regime for years, has repeatedly refused to back western calls for UN security council resolutions which would place international pressure on Damascus.

Its diplomats are deeply suspicious that Britain, the US and other western countries will use momentum at the UN to eventually call for a military intervention similar to that seen in Libya.

The Russians have argued that it is counterproductive to back the rebels so openly, as this only gives Assad and his allies more reasons to keep on fighting rather than negotiate.

Video footage emerging from Syria has showed rebels carrying out summary executions on prominent pro-Assad militia leaders, prompting condemnation from human rights groups.

Cameron suggested to business leaders last week his main focus would be on improving trade links, however.

"We will be at the judo, so it may be a bit off-putting, but nonetheless, I know my major priority is to get those trade deals, to get that investment and not to concentrate on what's happening on the mat," the prime minister said.

After Boris Johnson called for Putin to take part himself in the "politicians' Olympics", Cameron made clear today: "I look forward to taking the president to the judo at the Olympic park, but I note that we will be spectators and not participants."

The pair are in west London on an eventful afternoon for the UK's judo prospects, as Gemma Gibbons produced a winning Ippon to beat World Championship winner Audrey Tcheumeo secured a silver medal.

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