Cautious Hague greets Russian foreign minister

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov

By Alex Stevenson

Britain and Russia will seek to gloss over ongoing diplomatic troubles by emphasising their economic ties later.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting foreign secretary William Hague in London this morning in a meeting likely to be overshadowed by ongoing tensions.

The fate of poisoned spy Alexander Litvinenko may be fading into the past, but Russian intelligence activities continue to trouble London. Last December Katia Zatuliveter, a Liberal Democrat MP's researcher, was unveiled as a Russian spy.

Ms Zatuliveter wishes to remain in Britain, behaviour which Moscow says points to her innocence. Regardless, the case has underlined the caution with which Russia's diplomats approach relations with Britain.

Insiders hope Mr Lavrov will be able to continue to improve the personal chemistry between himself and Mr Hague, after the foreign secretary visited Moscow last year.

But independent crossbencher David Hannay, who served as Britain's ambassador to the United Nations from 1990 to 1995, told that the meeting was not one of equals.

"Lavrov is not really a minister of foreign affairs like Hague is... he's just [Russian prime minister Vladimir] Putin's man," Lord Hannay, who worked with Mr Lavrov at the United Nations, said.

"He's very polished, his English his perfect, he's a tough, argumentative fellow. But he doesn't make policy. He doesn't even, I suspect, shape policy very much.

"If Putin and to a lesser extent [Russian president Dmitry] Medvedev make to want it look as if our relations are better than they were at the worst of the dispute over polonium, he will come over he and do that."

"That won't depend on the chemistry between him and William Hague, it will be because that is what he has been told to do."

The pair are expected to concentrate on areas of agreement in their discussion at the Foreign Office. The economy, the two countries' 'partnership for knowledge' and the recently concluded energy deal with BP are all likely to be raised. Cultural exchanges are also on the agenda.

Ms Zatuliveter's activities are not expected to be referred to at length. Lord Hannay added: "I think these intelligence spats... are just taken in their stride by both sides. Nobody wants to allow that to rock the boat unduly."

Britain's substantial trade links with Russia already total over £6 billion, but Russia is upset that Britain has not done more to court Moscow. Of the 'Bric' emerging economies - Brazil, Russia, India and China - Britain has sent substantial delegations to the last two.

Over 600 British companies are active in Russia, making Britain one of the largest direct foreign investors in Russia.


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