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Blair and Putin Deepen Ties During London Visit

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin spent this week settling differences over Iraq and pumping good will between Moscow and London. A lucrative energy deal helped seal the friendship.

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President Vladimir Putin is the first Russian leader to pay a state visit to Britain since 1874.

After four days of official state visits, Britain’s Tony Blair and Russia’s Vladimir Putin were on friendly first-name terms. Having laid to rest their dispute over the U.S.-led war on Iraq, the two leaders said they had simply agreed to disagree on the military intervention. Britain had supported the war; Russia was against it. But now the two leaders said they were committed to working together to help rebuild the country.

"After what we have all been through, after Iraq, there is a real sense of the international community pulling back together again and working together," Blair said on Thursday after he had met with Putin to discuss a number of political issues including Iraq, Iran, the Middle East peace process and the Russian economy.

British-Russian friendship

Speaking from Downing Street, Blair praised the leadership of his "friend Vladimir," and stressed that global divisions over Iraq were healed, and that it was time to move on. "The threat is not a clash between the big world powers. The threat is from extremism and terrorism and unstable states. That’s why it’s important that we work together," he said.

Putin endorsed Blair’s call for cooperation and cited the U.N. resolution on reconstructing Iraq, which was passed in May, as an example of how the two countries could work together.

The Russian leader said Moscow was willing to support the occupying U.S. and British forces in their reconstruction of Iraq, although he cautioned that the military powers needed to focus on building a legitimate Iraqi government.

When asked if he had changed his position on the Iraq war, Putin responded, "You know that our opinions are not always the same [but] now on key issues that we are tackling today we have come very, very close."

Oiling the friendship

The two leaders reinforced their professions of friendship with the signing of lucrative energy deals, designed to tie oil and gas rich Russia more closely to the West.

At a London oil conference attended by Putin and top Russian and European oilmen, the British oil giant British Petroleum agreed to purchase a 50 percent stake in Russia’s third-largest oil company TNK. The deal, worth €5.3 billion ($6.15 billion), comes after BP’s rival Royal Dutch/Shell agreed to invest €8.7 euro in drilling off Siberia’s coast. Together the two agreements make Britain the biggest foreign investor in Russia.

Britain’s Energy Minister Stephen Timms and his Russian colleague Igor Jussufow also signed an agreement to cooperate in Russian gas firm Gazprom’s construction of a 1,200 kilometer gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea. The project, worth €4.98 billion, runs from St. Petersburg through northern Germany and along the eastern coast of Britain.

The ties that bind

The energy deals signal growing western investor confidence in Moscow’s economy as well as a desire to decrease dependency on oil coming from the Middle East.

"These plans would make Great Britain first in terms of investment in the economy of Russia," Putin announced after the deals had been signed on Thursday. He said he is encouraged by the new wave of foreign investment and regarded it as "a reflection of the positive trends in Russia’s investment climate." Russia is trying to pull itself out of an economic downslide that began five years ago. Such agreements as the one with Britain strengthen its international standing and help tie the country more closely to the West.

Blair, who admitted that his country was concerned about meeting its growing energy consumption while reducing its dependence on oil supplies from potential trouble spots in the Arab world, said the energy deals benefited both sides. "Russia is already producing the same level of oil as Saudi Arabia and the potential is enormous," he told reporters on Thursday.

At the end of Putin’s four-day stay in Britain, Blair only had positive words for the Russian leader: "Dear Vladimir, thank you for the constructive friendship and partnership you’ve demonstrated not only in the last few days, but in the last few years."

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