Tony Blair wanted Vladimir Putin to be given a seat at the international “top table”, newly released files have revealed.
According to papers released to the National Archives in Kew, London, when Blair was Prime Minister, he believed the Russian President was at heart a “patriot” and that it was important to encourage him to adopt western values. This belief was held despite deep misgivings about Putin among government officials, who mistrusted him and feared he represented a return to Cold War attitudes.
In January 2001, less than a year after Putin assumed power in Russia, an internal briefing note entitled “Putin’s Progress” highlighted such concerns. One of the topics mentioned was anxiety over evidence of a resurgence in Russian espionage activities.
It 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. 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.”
There are also notes of how Putin told Blair that he did not want to be seen as “anti-Nato”, and that Russian defence minister Marshal Igor Sergeyev warned any further enlargement of NATO would be a “major political error”. He added that Moscow would take “appropriate steps” in response, in something of a forewarning to recent developments of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Another cause for concern outlined in the newly released files relates to the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk in August 2000, where all 118 crew members died. It explained that while Putin had thanked Blair for his offer of assistance, Russian officials had spread false rumours that it was the result of a collision with a British naval sub.
The new documents also list a series of assurances given by Putin to Blair during their meetings at various international summits, such as backing for the West’s hardline on dealing with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and a promise that Moscow would stop supplying Iran’s nuclear programme. Both of these of course turned out to be false.
But Blair reportedly still thought Putin should be given a position in international alliances. In the notes of a meeting with Dick Cheney, who was vice president to George Bush, it is mentioned that Blair compared Putin to French President Charles de Gaulle.
“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 said.
It continues: “He (Blair) 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.”
There’s also evidence in the papers of the fact that diplomatic niceties had to be observed, regardless of tensions with the Kremlin. When Blair travelled to Moscow in October 2001, a Number 10 official informed him: “You will recall that Putin actually asked you to come to celebrate his birthday on Sunday so we are bringing a set of the new silver No 10 cufflinks as your gift – he will be the first leader to have them.”
The news comes almost a year after Putin first launched his illegal invasion of Ukraine, on 24 February, 2022. Across Ukraine, major cities such as Berdyansk, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Sumy, and the capital Kyiv have faced attacks from Russian forces, with Western officials warning the war could be the largest in Europe since 1945.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), nearly seven thousand deaths of civilians in Ukraine have been verified as of December 2022 - but the true number is likely to be more. The was has also resulted in a humanitarian crisis, with many Ukrainians force to flee their home country and seek asylum abroad via rehoming schemes.
Recently, Russia has targeted Ukraine’s power supply, plunging families into the dark and cold amidst an already difficult winter. Meanwhile, just weeks ago, Putin warned that Russia’s new nuclear-capable missile is almost ready for deployment, and on Thursday (29 December) fired 120 missiles at Ukraine in Russia’s biggest attack in weeks.