Putin to meet Blair and Queen on first official visit to West

Vladimir Putin will visit Britain next Monday for talks with Tony Blair and a meeting with the Queen in his first trip to the West since replacing Boris Yeltsin.

The Russian President, a former KGB chief, is expected to raise Russian concerns about Britain's support for the American "Star Wars Two" project, which is aimed at creating a nuclear defensive umbrella to prevent attacks on the US.

Downing Street expressed quiet satisfaction that Mr Putin had chosen London to make his first visit to the West, in spite of the strong criticism in Europe of the alleged Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya. The clear aim is to engage with the Russian President, rather than to protest over alleged Russian war crimes.

"We have recognised that the Russians have a security problem," said a spokesman. "Any use of force should be proportionate and mindful of the need to reduce the risk to civilians."

However, Mr Putin may be seeking to use the Prime Minister's close relationship with President Bill Clinton to underline the anxiety felt in Russia at the star wars project.

Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, has made clear that Britain would allow the US to use early warning systems in this country, but Britain would want to be brought under the protection of the antimissile umbrella. That could mean the stationing of US missiles in Britain, reviving memories of the protests over the siting of American Cruise missiles at British bases such as Greenham Common.

In an echo of the historic Thatcher-Gorbachev talks, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said it was in Britain's and Europe's interests to develop a "strategic relationship" with Russia.

The Russian President will arrive late on 16 April for talks the following day with Mr Blair and a round-table meeting with senior industrialists.

Mr Blair's agenda will include the conflict in Chechnya, but there were clear signals that in spite of that, Downing Street does not intend to allow it to dominate the talks. Mr Blair extended the invitation to visit Britain during his meeting with Mr Putin in St Petersburg, Russia, last month during the presidential election campaign.

It is being described as an "official working visit" rather than a state visit, but the Russian President is expected to meet the Queen during his two-day stay in London. The Russian news agency ITAR-Tass reported that Mr Putin would meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace. He will travel without his wife, Lyudmila.

A Buckingham Palace spokesman said that the Queen was guided by the Foreign Office on meetings with foreign heads of state on working visits to the country.

The Council of Europe decided last week to suspend Russia in protest at human rights abuses in Chechnya. It is believed that Mr Putin is seeking a way out of the Chechen guerrilla attacks on Russian troops occupying the breakaway republic.

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