By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 09/07/08):
If it had been boxing, the encounter would have been deemed a mismatch. Dmitry Medvedev, a young, fit-looking 42, freshly elected in a (stage-managed) landslide, feisty and full of beans versus Gordon Brown, 57, veteran of a hundred forgotten punch-ups, slow on his feet, unelected, hounded and, according to media speculation, well on his way to an early bath.
Yet the supposed besting of Britain’s prime minister in his bout with Russia’s president was not a foregone conclusion. In interviews prior to their meeting at the G8 summit in Japan, Medvedev appeared to signal a desire to repair relations strained to freezing point by the 2006 Litvinenko murder case and a long list of bilateral and strategic grievances.
In the event, Medvedev was more pugnacious than placatory. Perhaps he was anxious, in his first outing on the world stage, to appear as hard-nosed as his predecessor, the pugilistic Vladimir Putin. Perhaps he was irritated by weekend reports, attributed to anonymous senior security sources, that Moscow was running a spy offensive in Britain – and compromising its terror defences.
Those same mysterious “sources” were at it again on Monday, even as Brown and Medvedev came to grips, telling a BBC reporter that “we strongly believe” the Russian state was directly involved in Litvinenko’s fatal poisoning. For good measure they also claimed to have foiled a Russian plot to murder another London-based Kremlin critic, the billionaire Boris Berezovsky.
Russia has long complained that Britain has become a willing sanctuary for dissidents bent on overthrowing Putin’s authoritarian political system. Its refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, chief suspect in the Litvinenko case, is justified by what Moscow sees as British encouragement of subversive forces. As if to rub it in, on the eve of the G8, London granted political asylum to Andrei Sidelnikov, a reformist opposition leader. Diplomatically speaking, that was a poke in the eye.
Looked at another way, Britain’s wider concerns about Russian policy, shared by US and European partners, are not without substance. They range from Moscow’s democratic deficit, its arms build-up and resumption of strategic nuclear bomber patrols over the Norwegian Sea to its perceived troublemaking and obstructionism on issues such as Kosovo’s independence, curbing Iran’s nuclear activities, and Georgia’s aspirations to join Nato and the EU.
It was Medvedev’s refusal to budge on specific matters such as Lugovoi’s extradition, the closure of British Council offices in Russia, and visa problems experienced by BP staff, rather than strategic differences, which produced headlines suggesting Brown had taken a beating.
Yet Medvedev’s spokesman, Sergei Prikhodko, declined to indulge in the sort of tub-thumping Putin so enjoyed. He insisted the new Russian leader still believed bilateral collaboration could be revived and expanded. “Medvedev proposed concentrating on the prospects of restoring relations to the level they were several years ago,” he said. “We have a certain prospect for positive progress in UK-Russian relations.”
The root of Brown’s difficulties in trying to promote a focused, robust foreign policy in support of British interests and values may not lie with awkward customers such as Medvedev, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy or even with Robert Mugabe, but with domestic perceptions, broadcast around the globe, that he is an unlucky, mortally wounded politician whose time is fast running out.
In a wired-up world, the Russians read the papers like everybody else. They do not need legions of spies to tell them the “Westminster village” and the British media are increasingly obsessed with plots, real or imagined, to bring the prime minister down. Like US presidential contender Barack Obama or China’s leadership, they make calculations about just how much face-time, how many concessions, and how much leeway they must give a man whose political need is greater than their own, and who in any case may soon be replaced.
It is a cruel business. It is unfair. But it’s politics. So when Brown declares, as he did yesterday, that Zimbabwe’s “illegitimate regime [should] be replaced as soon as possible”, it is unclear whether anybody is really listening to him – and certain that he lacks the power to make it happen. It is an uncomfortable thought, but Mugabe may well outlast him.