Flattery, flummery - and a rather distasteful silence

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The Independent Online

Dominated as as it was by ceremony and commerce, the signal achievement of this week's state visit to Britain by President Vladimir Putin was no single statement or event, but the consigning to the past of the British-Russian rift over Iraq. At yesterday's news conference with Tony Blair, Mr Putin even half-backtracked from his scornful remarks to Mr Blair in Moscow about the non-discovery of Iraq's illegal weapons. Nor did he stop there, adding that Russia believed Iraq might indeed possess such weapons.

Given the questions Mr Blair currently faces about the uses and abuses of intelligence data, Mr Putin's remarks were helpful beyond what was required by common courtesy. But then he had debts of his own to repay. From the Queen and the Prime Minister downwards, all those who hosted Mr Putin had gone out of their way to express their enthusiastic support, even - Mr Blair used the word on two separate occasions yesterday - their "admiration" for the changes Mr Putin is trying to bring about in Russia.

There was, none the less, something distasteful about such unadulterated public flattery. For although Mr Blair was careful to say that he and Mr Putin had discussed the vexed question of Chechnya, he voiced not a word of public criticism, either about the conduct of Russian troops in the rebel region, or about the recent closure of independent television stations in Russia.

But this visit was less about giving the British public a view of the Russian President than it was about impressing his audience back home. The lavish banquets laid on for Mr Putin were calculated to show the Russian public how highly their leader is regarded abroad, how convincingly he takes his place alongside one of the most seasoned international leaders, and how well he acquits himself in surroundings splendid enough for any Tsar.

Aside from banishing the memory of the dispute over Iraq, the other purpose of this visit was to play to Russia's reviving sense of historical continuity and national pride. The television pictures beamed back to Russia were as important as the words - the first salvo in Mr Putin's campaign for re-election as Russian President next spring.