Britain has worked hard to buff Vladimir Putin’s image over the years. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair became the first foreign leader to invite the Russian president a dozen years ago even before he was first elected, although he had already launched a second war in Chechnya designed to reduce the breakaway region to rubble.
The London Times heralded another visit three years later by characterizing Putin as the best Russian leader since Alexander II, the “Tsar Liberator” who abolished serfdom in 1861. Police commandoes arrested Putin’s adversary and oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky months later in part of the president’s drive to impose control over the country’s energy industry.
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It’s been an uphill battle for the British. After another Kremlin critic, the former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, died from a poisoning assassination that left radioactive particles across central London, Moscow refused to extradite the main suspects in the British investigation, then reduced relations to Cold War levels by singling out London as its main western foe.
So it was disconcerting to see Putin back in London today shaking hands with David Cameron before the two set off to watch an Olympic match of Putin’s favorite sport, judo. The body language was awkward even before the men parted ways to take separate limousines before meeting again at the Olympic park. The British prime minister had predictably failed to pressure the Russian leader over his unwavering support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The awkwardness must have been just what Putin wanted. Russia’s veto of UN resolutions on imposing sanctions against Damascus is aimed mainly at increasing Russian influence and visibility by obstructing any western-led effort to remove Moscow’s ally. Nevertheless, Cameron glossed over what he called “some differences” in their positions, saying Britain and Russia “both want to see an end to that conflict and a stable Syria.”
The effect at home of Putin’s dour parading around London serves him no less well. Having just returned to the presidency for a third term, he is overseeing a methodical crackdown against a nascent protest movement. This week, it has taken the form of ludicrous embezzlement charges against Russia’s leading opposition figure and an ongoing show trial that threatens three members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot with seven years in jail for causing a minor disturbance in a church.
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Greeting Putin with smiles and handshakes enables him to present himself abroad as a leader like any other, whose problems at home are nothing out of the ordinary.
Of course it’s no easy task to take a hard line against a man who controls the world’s largest energy supplies and a nuclear arsenal and nurtures an inclination to challenge western interests at every opportunity. However it’s time to start treating Putin as the kind of pariah he is: an authoritarian strongman in the mold of his counterpart Assad whom mollycoddling only emboldens. Western countries will realize that sooner or later — even Britain, where the learning curve has been especially long.
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