Putin spares 30 minutes for talks with Blair during historic state visit

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Indy Politics

President Vladimir Putin, who arrives in London next week on the first state visit by a Russian leader since the 19th century, will spend only two hours of his three-day stay with Tony Blair.

The two will meet for lunch at Downing Street on Thursday, the last full day of Mr Putin's three-day stay, with just half an hour earmarked for talks. Officially, Mr Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, will be guests of the Queen and will stay at Buckingham Palace, with a state banquet on the first night. Even for a state visit, however, the political content of Mr Putin's agenda is notably light.

To the disappointment of No 10, Russia joined France and Germany in opposing the war on Iraq, threatening - with France - to use its veto. The friction was palpable when, at a meeting near Moscow in April, Mr Putin ridiculed Mr Blair's stance on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The disagreement was especially embarrassing as it came amid preparations for the state visit, the dates of which had long been set.

British officials stressed that Mr Putin and Mr Blair still have close personal ties and insisted that bilateral relations had steadied after the disagreement over Iraq. Russia, they noted, had signed up to the latest UN Security Council resolution on Iraq, authorising a UN special envoy and recognising the Americans and British as occupying forces.

Mr Putin's time with Mr Blair, however, provides little time for the large number of topics on the Anglo-Russian agenda. Headed by Iraq, and a possible request from Britain for Russian troops to assist with peace-keeping, they include the unrest in Iran and Russia's assistance to Tehran in nuclear power, and trade relations, with a mooted project to extend a gas pipeline from Siberia to the Netherlands and perhaps Britain. Mr Blair has also undertaken to raise, again, Russia's conduct in the breakaway region of Chechnya.

Divergences over Iraq and Iran aside, British relations with Russia are looking better than for some time, with trade set to rebound this year to its level before the rouble crash of 1999 and British investment - through new deals announced by BP, Shell and Cadbury - reaching record levels.

The pomp of a state visit is seen as a way of encouraging what British officials see as positive developments in Russia's business climate, legal reform and even in Chechnya.