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Cameron claims talks with Putin on Syria are proving 'purposeful'
Friday, 10 May 2013 19:55

Prime minister points to common goals with Assad's Russian ally after leaders' meeting at Black Sea resort

David Cameron declared on Friday that he had made real progress on Syria during talks with Vladimir Putin, but did not outline any concrete steps.

The prime minister met Putin at the president's residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi during a brief visit in which he took pains to present himself as growing closer to the Russian leader following years of strained relations between London and Moscow.

Cameron said he was pleased with the talks, which he described as "very substantive, very purposeful and very useful".

His visit came as the west sought to make a fresh diplomatic push to end the two-year war in Syria, which, Cameron said, had killed at least 80,000 people.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, met Putin in Moscow this week and announced that the two countries had agreed to call an international conference attended by Bashar al-Assad's regime and by rebels, with the hope of starting talks to create a transitional government.

Cameron lent his support to the conference, and is due to meet Barack Obama in Washington on Monday.

"The history of Syria is being written in the blood of her people," Cameron said. Russia and the UK had had different views on how best to handle the situation, he noted.

The prime minister emphasised the common goals of each side: "Stop Syria from fragmenting, let the Syrian people choose who governs them, and prevent the growth of violent extremism."

Russia remains Assad's closest ally, along with Iran, and has continued delivering weapons to the country while blocking US-led attempts to impose sanctions on Syria through the UN. Speaking in Warsaw, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said that Russia had no plans to sell Syria a new advanced air defence system, yet noted that deliveries of such a system were underway.

The S-300 missile system is one of Russia's most sought-after weapons, and could be used against any attempts at international intervention.

Asked to comment on Wall Street Journal reports this week citing Israeli documents that indicated Russia was planning to sell the S-300 to Syria, Lavrov said: "Russia is not planning to sell. Russia already sold them a long time ago. It has signed the contracts and is completing deliveries, in line with agreed contracts, of equipment which is anti-aircraft technology."

Putin said London and Moscow had common interests in bringing an end to the bloodshed, while maintaining Syria's territorial integrity – a catchword commonly used by Moscow to imply opposition to outside intervention.

Cameron last visited Russia in September 2011, the first time a British prime minister had gone to the country since Tony Blair attended the G8 summit in St Petersburg in July 2006. Just four months later, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB spy turned Kremlin critic, was poisoned by polonium in London, prompting relations to plunge to a post-cold war low.

In response to a UK outcry and demands that Andrei Lugovoi, the chief suspect for the killing, be extradited to London, Russia expelled British diplomats and closed British Council offices. A campaign against the oil company BP further strained ties.

On Friday, Cameron stressed commonalities between the two countries.

Sochi is due to host the winter Olympics in February, following London's hosting of the summer Olympics last year.

"We've also discussed how we both want the Sochi Games to be safe and secure," Cameron said. "There should be limited cooperation between our security services for the Sochi Olympics."

All ties between Russia and the UK were cut in the wake of Litvinenko's death in 2006 and Moscow still refuses to extradite Lugovoi; he has since become a deputy in the Duma, thereby gaining immunity from prosecution.

"It's not a secret there are issues where we differ," Cameron said. He added that a more effective relationship would "make people in both our countries safer and better off". He made no mention of Russia's worsening human rights situation.

Time-keeping with Vladimir Putin

David Cameron should leave the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi a happy man. Vladimir Putin kept him waiting less than 30 minutes before their meeting.

The Russian president's tardiness has become the stuff of legend. Whether it's to the grand opening of a cultural landmark such as the Mariinsky theatre (15 minutes) or a meeting with world leaders (record: four hours), the Russian president appears incapable of being on time.

Is it a personal failing or a deliberate tactic adopted by the former KGB agent to show who's boss?

Many observers bet strongly on the latter and have begun to use it as a measure of just what Putin thinks about his interlocuters.

Punctuality has never been Putin's thing though. As far back as June 2000, just six months after he became president, Putin arrived 15 minutes late for a meeting in the Vatican with Pope John Paul II.

He arrived 14 minutes late for his meeting with the Queen in 2003, which his aides blamed on London traffic (never a problem in Moscow, where roads are regularly shut whenever Putin zips by).

He has never been on time meeting Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, with whom he has a famously prickly relationship. The maximum he has kept her waiting is reportedly 40 minutes.

In June 2012, meeting Barack Obama for the first time as president, Putin kept the US leader waiting for at least half an hour in the beach resort of Los Cabos, where the two had a meeting scheduled on the sidelines of the G8.

Later that month Putin kept the chiefs of the world's top energy companies – BP, ExxonMobil, RoyalDutchShell and others – waiting a full three hours for a scheduled meeting at the St Petersburg economic forum.

When he finally appeared he did not apologise. It was noted there that "the combined wealth of all the people here is greater than the entire GDP of Russia".

In July 2012, Putin was set to meet Ukraine's president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, in the Crimean resort of Yalta; he showed up four hours late. He was too busy having a drink nearby with a Russian biker gang called the Night Wolves.

Last week Putin kept John Kerry, the US secretary state, waiting for an astonishing three hours, while he berated his cabinet.

David Cameron should rest easy.

Miriam Elder

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