Who is out to get Gordon Brown? Or perhaps more aptly, who isn’t? The beleaguered British Prime Minister probably couldn’t have had a more frustratingly empty first meeting with new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of the G8 in Japan, and many are pointing to the ill-timed media leaks which have succeeded in aggravating the Russians. Despite promising “very frank” talks with Medvedev on a number of critical issues ranging from TNK-BP to the British Council to the Lugovoi extradition, Brown seemed to go into the meeting lacking any kind of carrots or soft power, encountered by an uncharacteristically disinterested Medvedev.
The FT gave the meeting the following stinging summary: “Mr Medvedev was in no mood to give ground in the hour-long talks, believing that Mr Brown had deliberately soured the atmosphere by raising the issues, instead of looking exclusively to the future. Russian diplomats were also furious at reports in the British press last week which suggested London was awash with Russian spies. Moscow believes the leak came from MI5, the British security service.“But the alleged MI5 leak was only the beginning, as a corresponding story broken by the BBC’s Newsnight would leave one with little doubt that the FSB was behind the murder of Litvinenko.Either someone was intent on sabotaging Brown’s Russia agenda, or he was the victim of unlikely circumstance. Neither of these stories were pegged to any specific timely news hook, which leads me to believe that the leaks were promoted to undermine the prime minister – but who?Clearly the Russians themselves were not having much fun as Britain rained on their G8 parade. An aide to Medvedev is quoted as saying “We are working on raising British-Russian relations out of a certain cul-de-sac. And as for various unattributed leaks, they demonstrate that unfortunately in Great Britain not everyone has such a constructive approach as we felt the Prime Minister himself has.“Brown’s countless domestic opponents could of course be responsible, but with so many other areas of policy vulnerability for them to hit, aggravating a delicate foreign policy issue that will continue to hurt British interests in general would not seem advisable. Could it be internal rebellion from certain officials of MI5, unhappy with Brown’s level of assertiveness in dealing with Russia? Probably not. No doubt the most popular target of blame for the leaks will the anti-Putin camp based in London – though perplexingly this move damages their interests as well.I have trouble seeing any winners today.UPDATE: The FT just published a late night editorial on the matter, which concludes that Medvedev was really not willing to begin any Litvinenko- or TNK-BP discussions no matter what, leaks or not: “With other European Union states ready to take advantage of the UK’s difficulties and do business with Russia, Mr Medvedev can afford to cold-shoulder Mr Brown. But the failure to address the underlying issues casts doubts over his commitment to the rule of law and damages hopes for real progress in east-west ties. For if the Kremlin can pick off one western state today, it can pick off another tomorrow.“I would be remiss for not pointing out a small hypocrisy from the editorial page of the FT on this one. Today they write that Russia must make sure its “government bodies and courts to be neutral in dealing with the public” yet just eight days ago they ran an editorial with the headline “Medvedev must act in BP row.”I don’t disagree here – I just think we need to iron out the problems and make clear what real rule of law means in Russia.