Theresa May has insisted that the UK cannot return to “business as usual” with Russia until Moscow ends its campaign of destabilizing activities such as last year’s chemical weapon attack in Salisbury.
In a face-to-face meeting with president Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Japan, Ms May is believed to have demanded that the two Russian spies who are the prime suspects in the poison attack face justice.
But speaking ahead of the meeting, Mr Putin shrugged off the incident - which saw former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia come within an inch of losing their lives and mother-of-three Dawn Sturgess die after exposure to the nerve agent novichok - as a “fuss about spies” which was “not worth five kopecks”.
Speaking to the Financial Times, Mr Putin scarcely attempted to maintain his position that he was not involved in ordering the hit on Mr Skripal, who acted as a UK double agent within Russian military intelligence during the 1990s and 2000s and later came to Britain as part of a prisoner swap after being uncovered and jailed.
In a chilling assessment of the case, Putin told the FT: “Treason is the gravest crime possible and traitors must be punished. I am not saying the Salisbury incident is the way to do it, but traitors must be punished.”
Britain has little hope that Russia will hand over GRU military intelligence agents Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov to face charges of conspiracy to murder in relation to the Salisbury case, as Moscow maintains a strict bar on extradition of its nationals for trial in a foreign court.
But Ms May -who was steely-faced as she shook hands with Putin for the cameras in Osaka - said that she would nonetheless make clear to Mr Putin that the UK wants them to face justice, and that any thaw in British-Russian relations will require a change in Moscow’s behaviour.
Asked in a TV interview hours before the meeting whether she would demand the handover of the GRU agents, the prime minister said: “I will be making very clear that we expect these individuals to be brought to justice. The position on the Russian side is that they do not permit the extradition of their nationals.
“But we have European arrest warrants out for those individuals and as soon as they set foot outside Russia then we will be making every effort to bring them to justice.”
Relations between London and Moscow have plunged to a post-Cold War low as a result of the Skripal case, along with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, intervention in support of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and alleged attempts to interfere in the Brexit referendum and use social media to foment divisions within the UK.
The UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats believed to be acting as intelligence agents in the wake of the Salisbury attack, sparking a tit-for-tat response from Moscow which has seriously degraded contacts between the countries. Britain led an international response which saw more than 150 Russian officials sent home from countries around the world.
But Mr Putin appears to believe it is now time for a thaw, telling the FT: “I think that Russia and the UK are both interested in fully restoring our relations.”
Differences over the Skripal case should not get in the way of international relations, he said: “All this fuss about spies and counter-spies, it is not worth serious interstate relations. This spy story, as we say, it is not worth five kopecks.”
“The list of accusations and allegations against one another could go on and on. We need to just leave it alone and let security agencies deal with it.”
But Ms May said: “It's not business as usual and it can't be business as usual with Russia until they stop the sort of acts we have seen them doing around the world.
She added: “Let's be clear. The use of a nerve agent, a chemical weapon, on the streets of Salisbury was a despicable and irresponsible act.
“We saw an innocent British citizen die as a result of the use of this nerve agent.
“Russia needs to recognise its acts and stop acting in this way and stop its other destabilising activities around the world, including for example the use of disinformation and cyber attacks.”
Speaking ahead of her meeting with Putin, Ms May said: “We have no argument with the Russian people. It is possible for Russia to follow a different path. It is possible for Russia to have a different relationship on the international scene. There is another way forward for Russia but it has to choose to change its route.”
In a jibe at the current Tory leadership race, which will see either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt installed as Ms May’s successor as prime minister on the back of the votes of around 160,000 Conservative members, Mr Putin said it was very different from his own election as president in a nationwide vote.
“It is different from what you have in Great Britain,” he said. “We are a democratic country. The choice is always made by the Russian people.”
Mr Putin was also due to meet US president Donald Trump, who he described as “a talented person”.
“Mr Trump is not a career politician,” he said. “I do not accept many of his methods when it comes to addressing problems. But do you know what I think? I think that he is a talented person. He knows very well what his voters expect from him.”
Ms May also risked controversy by scheduling meetings with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the fringes of the G20 gathering on Saturday.
Prince Mohammed - known as MBS - has been the focus of global condemnation as a result of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi military operations in Yemen, while Mr Erdogan's crackdown on the Turkish opposition in the wake of the attempted coup in 2016 has also sparked allegations of authoritarianism.
Ms May defended her decision to meet them, telling Sky News: "These are all individuals sitting around the G20 table. The G20 is about that international co-operation. I will be promoting that international rules-based order, I will be promoting that international co-operation and I will be giving that message to those that I meet individually and collectively around the G20 table.”
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