Russia's foreign and defence Ministers, Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu, arrive in London tomorrow for the first session of the UK-Russia Strategic Dialogue agreed between David Cameron and Vladimir Putin at the London Olympics last year. Whether the results of the meeting live up to the weighty designation of being 'strategic' remains to be seen, but the omens are not particularly encouraging. In terms of interests and outlook, the gap between the two governments still looks too wide for a substantive breakthrough in relations to be possible.
Achieving a UK version of the 'reset' with Russia was one of the priorities William Hague brought with him to the Foreign Office three years ago. After the nadir of the Litvinenko affair, he had cause to believe that things could only improve and that a change of government would help to clear the air. The two countries might not become close allies, but a relationship based on trade and mutual regard for each other's interests might at least be in the offing. The Russians clearly hoped so too, hence the efforts of their London embassy to cultivate a Conservative Friends of Russia group in the hope that it would lead to closer ties with fewer strings attached.
The results so far will have been a disappointment to both. The 15% growth in British exports to Russia last year looks healthy enough until you consider that annual growth averaged 21% in the preceding decade, despite often fraught relations. BP has signed a major agreement with the state-owned oil company Rosneft, but it falls short of the partnership model initially envisaged and involves handing over its existing joint venture, TNK-BP. In effect, BP has been obliged to concede technology transfer as a junior shareholder rather than a joint partner. Meanwhile, the controversy about the Conservative Friends of Russia initiative shows that most Conservatives remain just as wary of Russia's credentials on democracy and human rights as anyone else.
At the top of the agenda tomorrow will be Syria where the UK and Russia seem no nearer to a common understanding of what needs to happen. William Hague is now exploring options for providing military aid to the rebels and clearly envisages a future without President Assad as the only acceptable option, while the Russians are still determined to keep their ally in place and have repeatedly blocked action on the UN Security Council that might compromise their objective. A formula of words will be found to gloss over these differences, but the reality is that the two countries want different things.
Perhaps just as worrying is the continued erosion of democratic standards in Russia itself which is now impacting on the country's external relations in a way that is becoming impossible to ignore. Unnerved by the rise of the protest movement that accompanied his return as president, Vladimir Putin has chosen to repress the opposition and smear it as a tool of western interests. New steps to stop foreign financing of NGOs have been accompanied by an increase in hardline official rhetoric aimed at exposing alleged western subversion. At a meeting of senior officials from the FSB last month, Putin raised the spectre of foreigners "meddling in our internal affairs" and said "no one receiving foreign money may speak on behalf of Russian society". The Putin elite lives in fear of an Orange Revolution scenario and is determined to prevent it by any means available.
Mostly this is aimed at America, despite the fact that President Obama has taken steps to minimise areas of disagreement with Russia. But the UK is inevitably drawn into campaigns aimed at fostering anti-western paranoia as a leading NATO power and the original 'main enemy' of Tsarist and Bolshevik propaganda. At the moment the person taking the brunt of this is Denis Keefe, the UK's deputy ambassador in Moscow, who finds himself under siege from Russian journalists following media allegations that he is a British spy. The real source of resentment appears to be the fact that Keefe is responsible for maintaining relations with the opposition and the hounding of him looks similar to the sustained harassment experienced by the UK's former ambassador, Tony Brenton, a few years ago.
The fact that the UK remains a preferred destination for many Russians, including those who wish to put themselves beyond Moscow's reach, is another point of ongoing tension. The decision to grant political asylum to Andrei Borodin, the former president of the Bank of Moscow who fell foul of the authorities, will be taken by the Kremlin as another hostile gesture. The attempted assassination of another out of favour Russian banker, German Gorbuntsov, in London last year and the suspicious death in Surrey last November of Alexander Perepilichnyy, a key witness in the Magnitsky case, are further indications that more than six years on from the Litvinenko affair, Russia's problems still have a habit of reaching our shores.
Moreover, these problems are likely to get worse before they get better. The Russian protest movement has not gone away and the government seems incapable of framing a serious reform agenda, so discontent will probably continue to grow. London, as an important centre of Russian life and a haven for dissent, cannot avoid being drawn in. Next year's elections in Moscow look certain to provide a flashpoint where the interests of the elite and the aspirations of the public once again prove impossible to reconcile. President Putin, who has signalled his determination to cling to power at all costs, will continue to choose repression and denounce any pressure to compromise as a foreign plot to undermine Russian sovereignty. This, of course, is all part of the unspoken subtext of tomorrow's discussions: for Syria, read Russia; for Assad, read Putin. When Sergei Lavrov says regime change is unacceptable, he isn't just talking about the Middle East.