May and Putin’s first phone call hints at thawing tensions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 9:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 9:03am

Theresa May has held her first telephone call with Russian president Vladimir Putin, and the two leaders could meet face-to-face in China next month, Downing Street has confirmed.

Relations with Russia have been fraught in recent years, with the British instrumental in pushing for economic sanctions against the Putin regime over its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

A statement from the Kremlin hinted at the possibility of a thaw, however. “While discussing topical issues in Russian-British relations, both sides expressed dissatisfaction with the current state of cooperation in the political, trade and economic spheres,” it said.

The leaders agreed to intensify “joint work on a number of fronts”, including air transportation safety, the Kremlin added.

The statement also noted that May had confirmed Britain will take part in commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the first arrival of the second world war Arctic convoys in the Russian city Arkhangelsk this month.

May is keen to demonstrate that Britain remains outward-looking, and will continue to play a full role in global diplomacy, despite the public’s decision to exit the European Union.

In the run-up to the referendum, remain campaigners, including May’s predecessor David Cameron, suggested Putin would be pleased by a vote for Brexit, because it would destabilise the EU.

After the result was declared in June, Putin ridiculed that idea, condemning Cameron’s claims as a “flawed attempt to influence the public opinion in his own country ... [that] didn’t even have the desired ... result”.

Both May and Putin are due to attend the G20 summit in China early next month, and Downing Street signalled that Britain would be open to the possibility of a private meeting between them on the sidelines of the meeting.

Russia was one of the few countries to give an upbeat response to May’s unexpected decision to appoint Boris Johnson as foreign secretary.

Moscow’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zhakarova, said: “The book of Russo-British relations has long been awaiting someone to turn over to a better page in the history of bilateral cooperation. If Britain’s Foreign Office, under its new leader, has a corresponding desire, we will support it.”

Russian state news outlet Tass described Johnson, whose appointment provoked raised eyebrows in some capitals, as a “charismatic” man, with a “reputation for wit, capable of destroying his opponent with a single a word”.

As home secretary, May declined to pursue punitive measures against Moscow earlier this year over the poisoning of former spy Alexander Litvinenko in London a decade ago, despite a public inquiry suggesting the Russian state had ordered the killing.

In January, May told the House of Commons the case amounted to a “blatant and unacceptable” breach of international law, and said she had asked Interpol to issue arrest warrants for the two suspects; but stressed the importance of maintaining engagement with Russia over issues including the Syrian conflict.