Miliband visit raises hopes for Russia-UK “reset”

British Foreign Minister David Miliband has arrived in Moscow hoping to warm up the frosty relations between the UK and Russia.

It is expected that the talks between the two FMs are going to be focused on the issues of the Middle East, Iran and Afghanistan. David Miliband will also be meeting with politicians, business leaders and civil servants.

First it was US President Barack Obama meeting President Medvedev, then the new Secretary General of NATO made relations with Russia a top priority. Now it’s appears to be the UK’s turn to renew its relationship with Russia, with Miliband making the first visit to Moscow by a British Foreign Minister in five years.

“Relations between Britain and Russia – the work that we need to do together – cover the whole globe, including issues like climate change,” Miliband said. “We’ll obviously make sure that we try to address the full range of our interests and concerns together.”

Relations between the UK and Russia have been fraught with difficulty over the last few years.

Ties began to deteriorate with the UK’s granting of political asylum to Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky and Chechen Akhmed Zakayev in 2003. Both are wanted men in Russia, and Britain has refused requests to extradite them.

In 2006 came a story straight out of a spy novel. The FSB accused Britain of using a fake rock planted in a Moscow street as a dead drop for secret information. Tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions followed.

A post-Cold War low came later that year, following the polonium-210 poisoning of ex-Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko in London. Britain’s main suspect is Andrey Lugovoy, whom Russia, in turn, refuses to extradite to the UK.

Two years ago Russia suspended the work of the British Council. It accused the cultural NGO of breaking tax laws, and raided and shut down offices. The Council was later cleared by a Russian court.

More recently, the UK came down firmly on the side of Georgia in last August’s conflict in South Ossetia, heavily criticizing Russia.

“If you want to only talk to Russia on the terms that Russia is interested in – that’s a particularly cowardly response,” said James Nixie, the program manager for Russia and Eurasia at Chatham House. “So just to talk about trade and economics, which are positive for the most part, would be ethically a very difficult move.”

The problems that have clouded UK-Russia relations in the last few years remain largely unsolved. However, current thinking is focused on a resetting of relations with Russia, emphasizing the positive.

At the Foreign Office, the feeling is that relations with Russia have already improved in the last year.

And although those improvements may be largely cosmetic, there are certainly areas where Russian-British interests converge – notably, Afghanistan, Iran and the Middle East.

Inside the House of Commons, the government has come under fire for delaying this visit to Moscow for so long.

“There are more important things about energy, the way we cooperate together over the future of Iran, the way in which we’re going to need increasing Russian support to try and resolve issues in Afghanistan, how are we going to deal with ongoing problems in the Middle East,” said MP Mike Hancock. “Russia is a player there, and we need to involve them with us if we are going to have any legitimacy at the negotiating table on many, many issues.”

“We have registered positive dynamics in Russian-British relations lately, political contacts have become more active and we hope Mr. Miliband’s visit will strengthen this tendency,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Nesterenko.

Ahead of the visit, Miliband characterized the discussions he hoped to have with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as “substantive.”

Relative issues

Still, for Miliband, it is not going to be only business on the agenda in Russia – there are some family matters to attend to as well.

His brother, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband, came to Russia in October to talk about global warming. He was giving an interview to the independent radio station “Ekho Moskvy” when a woman called the studio and presented herself as Sofia Davydovna Miliband, a long-lost Russian relative of the Miliband family.

“It was a fantastic experience to meet Sofia Miliband. She rang into a radio programme that I was on. I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with this fantastic woman and it has been fantastic for me and for my family,” shared Ed Miliband.

“It’s really humbling to think of someone who is in a way very close to our family but has lived such a different life,” commented David Miliband.

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