David Cameron will next week become the first senior British politician to speak to the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for more than three years, it emerged last night.
Mr Cameron will hold talks with Mr Putin and the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during a visit that represents a high-profile sign of the Coalition Government's attempt to reset Britain's relationship with the country's leaders after it was damaged by the 2006 poisoning of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London. The depths to which that relationship had sunk emerged yesterday when British sources admitted that apart from one telephone call not a single senior British politician had met or spoken to Mr Putin since 2007. Mr Putin phoned Gordon Brown when he became Prime Minister in June 2008 but there has been no top-level contact since and relations have been described as extremely difficult.
Significantly, although Mr Cameron will raise the issue of Mr Litvinenko and Britain's call for the extradition of the former KGB officer accused of poisoning him, he will not prioritise the issue. The Kremlin said the topic was not "worthy of high-level discussion".
Privately, British officials agree and no longer want the case to be an impediment to improving relations. They are keen for Mr Cameron to meet Mr Putin to try to build a relationship with him as he may be re-elected President of Russia in 2012.
During Britain's 'time out in the cold' Mr Putin has cultivated relations with Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, and the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, while his personal friendship with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has brought gains for Italy.
Six hundred UK companies work in Russia, which buys more than £5 billion of British exports each year. But difficulties remain and yesterday British and Russian officials played down expectations that the talks would lead to agreements on areas such a visa restrictions and the terms under which the British Council would be allowed to re-open its offices in the country. The Russians are also smarting at Britain's refusal to join up to a working group on security that they have established ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
"We have set up a group for cooperation between security services on security threats. Leading European countries and the US have joined, but Britain has ignored our invitation," said Dmitry Kozak, Russia's deputy prime minister. "We don't know why."