No return to the cold war

By Yuri Fedotov, the Russian ambassador to Britain (THE GUARDIAN, 26/05/07):

The recommendation that a Russian national should be extradited to stand trial for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko has led to fevered speculation about the state of UK-Russia relations. Few commentators, it seems, can resist the temptation to view the issue in cold war terms. Depending on who you choose to believe, there is either an icy chill or a deep freeze in relations.For most Russians, not least those who have grown up enjoying the freedoms and opportunities of the post-communist years, these perceptions seem utterly at odds with the reality of modern Russia’s experiences and ambitions. Russia is a member of the G8 group of leading democracies, and a partner in addressing international issues as diverse as nuclear proliferation and climate change, and I certainly find it difficult to reconcile the media rhetoric with reality.

It is worth briefly revisiting what caused this furore: the death of Alexander Litvinenko. As the president has made clear in his unequivocal condemnation, this was a heinous crime. There can be no justification whatsoever for his murder; absolutely none. Both the British and Russian authorities have launched investigations into his death, and the Russian authorities have cooperated fully with Scotland Yard.

A few days ago the UK director of public prosecutions recommended the extradition of Andrei Lugovoy from Russia to face prosecution in Britain. As is the case in many countries, our constitution explicitly forbids the extradition of its nationals to face trial in overseas jurisdictions. The Russian prosecutor general is awaiting formal details of the case against Lugovoy before making a decision on what action to take. There is no reason why evidence against him cannot be used in a Russian court of law.

Above all, as Russia’s first deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov, has clearly stated, this remains a strictly legal matter: “We have courts and prosecutors – independent from the executive – that will make an independent decision when they receive the case files.”

It works both ways, of course. The Russian authorities have requested the extradition of both Boris Berezovsky and Akhmed Zakayev from the UK. Berezovsky is wanted in connection with charges of misappropriation of funds and fraud in his home country, including the embezzlement of 214m roubles (£4.2m) from the national flagship air carrier, Aeroflot. Zakayev is sought in connection with terrorism offences, notably the murder of 120 people in the Moscow theatre siege.

Frustrating as it is, we ultimately have to respect the decision of the British courts not to extradite these men, despite the severity of the alleged crimes. The Russian legal authorities remain convinced of the cases against them, and we will continue to work through the British legal system to bring them to justice. It does not, however, amount to a new cold war.

The Russia of today is, of course, very different to that which emerged from the turbulence of the post-Soviet transition a decade ago. With the fastest growth rate in the G8, the Russian economy is set to become the world’s sixth largest within a few years. It is Britain that remains one of the chief beneficiaries of Russia’s economic success, topping the league of current international investors with $7bn invested in 2006 alone. Russian-British trade in the first 11 months of 2006 grew by 28.2% on the same period in 2005.

Few countries, I believe, have undergone the scale of Russia’s transformation in such a short time. It would be totally misguided, however, to view this as a resurgence of Russian power or any threat to regional stability. Energy resources are not a tool of Russian policy – we need consumers as much as they need suppliers. The president is correct to warn of the dangers of US unilateralism; we have a right to object to US missile deployment plans in breach of existing treaties. It is understandable that there will be objections to the destruction of war memorials in neighbouring countries, given the sacrifices made in the second world war. These issues, and the Russian responses to them, do not constitute renewed hostilities. They do, however, represent a defence of Russian interests within the currency of normal international relations.

There is, after all, a delicious irony to all this for those who remain uncomfortable with Russia’s engagement in the world economy and successful adjustment to a multipolar world. Russia owes its new-found place precisely to the fact that it is a fully democratic country, operating under the rule of law, with a thriving free-market economy. It explains why there is no fundamental threat to UK-Russia relations, and why there can be no return to the cold war.