Tony Blair wanted Vladimir Putin to be at the international ‘top table’… but officials feared Russian leader could not be trusted, newly-released documents reveal
- New files have revealed that Blair believed Putin was at heart a ‘Russian patriot’
- The former PM thought it was vital to encourage Putin to adopt Western values
- But officials saw ‘Russian intelligence effort against British targets’ at a high level
The then-Labour prime minister believed the former KGB man was at heart a ‘Russian patriot’ and it was important to encourage him to adopt Western values.
But behind the scenes, UK officials feared Putin represented a return to Cold War attitudes and questioned whether he could be trusted. Files released today by the National Archives at Kew in London show that their concerns, including fears of a resurgence in Russian espionage activities, were highlighted in an internal No 10 briefing in January 2001, barely a year after Putin assumed power.
The note, entitled ‘Putin’s progress’, said: ‘Despite the warmth of Putin’s rhetoric about the close links between Russia and the UK, the Russian intelligence effort against British targets remains at a high level.
Sir Tony Blair wanted Vladimir Putin to be at the international ‘top table’ despite deep misgivings among British officials about the new Russian president
‘The Russian intelligence presence in the UK is at Cold War levels, and they continue to try to post active and hostile officers to work against British interests worldwide.’
The document lists assurances given by Putin to Sir Tony during their meetings at international summits, which turned out to be false.
They included backing for the West’s tough line on dealing with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and undertakings that Moscow would stop supplying Iran’s nuclear programme. Mr Putin also told the then-prime minister he did not want to be considered to be ‘anti-Nato’, while his defence minister Marshal Igor Sergeyev then warned the alliance that any further enlargement would be ‘a major political error’ requiring Moscow to take ‘appropriate steps’.
The then-Labour prime minister believed the former KGB man was at heart a ‘Russian patriot’ and it was important to encourage him to adopt Western values
The memorandum is among a series of briefing notes for Sir Tony’s foreign policy adviser Sir John Sawers as he prepared to meet senior officials in the new US administration of George Bush ahead of the prime minister’s own first meeting with the new president.
In his talks with vice-president Dick Cheney at Camp David, Sir Tony compared Mr Putin’s ‘mindset’ to former French president Charles de Gaulle’s.
‘The Prime Minister described him as a Russian patriot, acutely aware that Russia had lost its respect in the world. To describe him as a Russian de Gaulle would be misleading, but he had a similar mindset,’ the note of the meeting said.
‘He [Sir Tony] understood that Putin had a low approval rating in the US. But he thought it was better to allow Putin a position on the top table and encourage Putin to reach for Western attitudes as well as the Western economic model.’
But the note, entitled ‘Putin’s progress’, said ‘the Russian intelligence effort against British targets remains at a high level’
Losing their seat is a worry for any politician. But Angus Lapsley, a No 10 official in 1997, wrote to a colleague that ‘for at least three weeks in a row’ the wrong number of chairs were placed around the Cabinet table, with Labour’s then culture secretary Chris Smith the ‘usual victim’.
He said in his November 1997 letter that while a place was set for Mr Smith, there was no chair. On one occasion ‘we only managed on the other side of the table because the Social Security Secretary did not turn up,’ Mr Lapsley wrote.