When Vladimir Putin awoke this morning in the Belgian Suite of
Buckingham Palace, he could be forgiven for briefly wondering where
Not since 1874, when Queen Victoria was in full pomp and Tsar
Alexander II was liberating serfs, has a Russian leader been invited
to make an official state visit - the highest honor that Britain can
bestow on a foreign leader.
For Mr. Putin, the accolade is a timely public-relations coup.
The sight of the Russian tricolor's red, white and blue fluttering
over the Mall as Putin lords it in an open carriage with the Queen
will augment his presidential aura at a very convenient moment, with
elections looming next year.
But beyond the ceremonial pleasantries, Putin's four-day stay in
London will be colored by more contentious matters of geopolitics.
Anglo-Russia relations, so robust in Putin's early years in
power, have darkened under the clouds of the Iraq war and the furor
over nuclear proliferation in Iran. The two issues have put the once-
chummy relationship between Putin and Prime Minister Tony Blair
under considerable strain. Mr. Blair was the first Western leader to
visit Putin after his election win three years ago, but when Blair
returned to Russia in April he was openly mocked by Putin because of
the failure to find Saddam Hussein or weapons of mass destruction.
Official talks here will last just 30 minutes - a piece of
protocol that some view as a reciprocal snub by Blair - and Putin is
in no mood for compromise.
Having resolutely opposed the war that Britain waged with the
United States in Iraq, Putin is now determined not to be muscled out
of the peace. He insists that pre-war contracts with Iraq signed by
oil giant LukOil be upheld by the provisional authority in the
country. He also wants Iraq's former debts to Moscow, thought to be
worth more than $8 billion, to be repaid.
On Iran, where Russia is helping build an atomic power plant,
Putin denies that Russia is helping proliferate dangerous nuclear
technology and is staunchly defending Russia's economic interests.
"We are against the option of using the subject of Iran's
potential nuclear program as a way of squeezing Russian companies
out of the Iranian market," Putin told the BBC in a pre-visit
For Blair, hosting the Russian president presents prickly
problems of its own. Putin has earned a reputation in the West as a
firm-but-fair reformer - a tag that sometimes seems at odds with his
domestic policies, particularly where press freedoms and Chechnya
"Putin is a multifaceted figure," says Professor Archie Brown of
Oxford University. "He is undoubtedly a Westernizer, but on domestic
political matters it's a mixed bag. The mass media are less free
than they were and Chechnya remains a colossal problem which he
doesn't seem to be anywhere close to resolving."
On Sunday the Russian government shut down the country's only
remaining independent television station with a national reach - and
replaced it with a sports channel. …