Putin rewards Blair's stance on Chechnya

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The Independent Online

Choosing not to be too fastidious over Chechnya, Tony Blair has unashamedly wooed the new Kremlin leader, Vladimir Putin. Today, the President-elect will reward him by making London his first port of call in the West and the visit could mark the start of a special relationship between Britain and Russia.

Mr Putin, 47, a former KGB agent, remains a largely unknown quantity and many countries are taking a cautious, wait-and-see attitude towards him. But after making a slow start that raised suspicions he was still under the thumb of Russia's main oligarch, he gave a number of signs last week that could encourage the West and vindicate Mr Blair in his political investment.

The strongest such signal was the push the President gave to arms control when he urged the State Duma to ratify the 1993 Start-2 treaty, cutting the long-range weapons of Russia and the US. After years of foot-dragging, the Russian parliament, re-elected last December and now more loyal to the Kremlin, voted on Friday to ratify the accord, which will halve the nuclear powers' stocks of warheads by 2007.

In addition, there were other small signs of a possible new reform spring in Russia. Rather than taking offence at the Council of Europe's decision to suspend the Russian delegation over Chechnya, Mr Putin agreed to allow observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) back into the war-torn Caucasian region. Promising indications on the economic front included Mr Putin's appointment of Andrei Illarionov, a liberal reformer from the early Yeltsin years, as his personal adviser.

The Moscow Times may call the British Prime Minister "Putin's pet foreigner" and accuse him of being "fawningly eager to taint himself" by association with the scourge of Chechnya. But if Russia is to rise and flourish, Mr Blair wants Britain to be ahead of other countries in engaging Moscow.

For Britain, a special relationship with Russia would be something new. In the Yeltsin years, Britain offered its capitalist expertise through the official "Know-How Fund," but British businessmen were less adventurous in Russia than their counterparts from America or Germany. Even today, most ordinary Russians see Britain as an eccentric little island, covered in the fog of a Dickens novel or a tale of Sherlock Holmes.

Mr Putin, who worked as a spy based in Leipzig and speaks fluent German, might have been expected to make a priority of developing Russia's relations with Germany. But the fact that the Germans, almost as much as the vocal French, criticised the war in Chechnya meant that the new Russian leader preferred to turn to Britain, which was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, so sure did he feel of a tolerant hearing in Britain that he arranged his one-day visit, starting this evening, despite the fact that in the pre-inauguration period, the President-elect is not supposed to travel.

When the Russian military began air and artillery strikes on Chechnya, Britain signalled to Mr Putin that, disturbed though it might be about excessive force and human rights abuse, it was not going to allow it to damage prospects for long term cooperation.

The British may not like the comparison, but the Russians feel that Chechnya is their Northern Ireland.