Tony Blair was told by officials that he would be presenting Vladimir Putin with a new set of silver cufflinks from 10 Downing Street as he took up the Russian leader’s invitation to join him on his birthday during a prime ministerial visit to Moscow.
The president would be the first leader to receive the special No 10 cufflinks, the prime minister was told in a memo before the October 2001 trip to Moscow, which has been released by the National Archives.
Magi Cleaver, a Downing Street press officer, wrote in the memo to Blair: “You will recall Putin actually asked you to come 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.”
A year earlier, Blair had courted controversy with a hastily arranged and private visit designed to personalise ties with Putin. During the 2001 birthday visit, Blair praised the strong leadership of Putin and reiterated that the cold war was over.
Other papers released by the archives contain Blair’s private assessment of Putin. A record of a February 2001 meeting between Blair and the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, in which the latter had asked about Putin, states that Blair “described him as a Russian patriot, acutely aware that Russia had lost its place in the world”.
To describe him as a “Russian De Gaulle” would be misleading but he had a similar mindset, Blair added, and it was right to put pressure on him on a number of issues.
Blair told Cheney 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”.
Other files, whose authorship are unclear but which are marked “confidential” and were part of briefing notes for a 2001 US visit by Blair’s foreign affairs adviser John Sawers, detail assurances Putin gave Blair at various summits that turned out to be false while Russia continued cold war levels of espionage activity against the UK. Key issues included Russia’s “concerning” supply to Iran’s weapons of mass destruction programme.
Putin had told Blair in Moscow he did not want to be viewed as “anti-Nato” and would not try to slow Nato enlargement, but this had been flatly contradicted by the Russian defence minister.
“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,” the notes state.
A senior UK diplomat reported that Blair suggested to Putin during a visit to Moscow in October 2002 that he might like to meet “major British energy players” on a return visit to London as a way of underlining their commitment to work together. Putin said he hoped to build a gas pipeline across Belarus that would supply the UK and “ensure stable supplies for decades to come”.