Will David Cameron's Visit to Moscow Spark a Political Thaw?

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Ivan Sekretarev / AP

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, left, and British Prime Minister David Cameron attend a signing ceremony in the Kremlin in Moscow on Sept. 12, 2011

On Aug. 31, when Russian police raided the Moscow offices of BP, its staff were not particularly shocked. In Russia, the British oil giant holds training exercises for such events the way some companies hold earthquake drills, and this was the third time Russian authorities had ransacked its offices since 2008. The timing of this search, however, seemed odd. The day before, Russia's state oil company Rosneft had granted a lucrative oil deal to BP's American rival, ExxonMobil, just a few months after BP's own bid had collapsed. On top of that, British Prime Minister David Cameron was due to hold talks in Moscow less than two weeks later, on Sept. 12, in the hope of patching up relations with Russia. The BP raid was clearly not going to help.

With assault rifles slung over their shoulders, half a dozen commandos burst into the BP office that morning and told employees to back away from their computers. Bailiffs then started rifling through thousands of files and copying dozens of hard drives while BP's lawyers watched. A team of the company's managers, in accordance with their training drills, went across town to set up a crisis-response unit in a makeshift office. The search was so extensive that by the afternoon, the armed commandos, according to one employee, were "bored out of their minds," lounging around the lunchroom and watching cartoons as the bailiffs continued snooping. A BP staffer ordered them pizzas, and the search continued into the night.

Jeremy Huck, the president of BP Russia, recalled that first day of the raid the way one might recall a power outage in a third-world country. "It's unpleasant," he said one week later, "but it comes with the territory." Only when the bailiffs returned on the second day did the raid take an unusual turn. They were executing a court injunction connected to a multibillion-dollar lawsuit BP is facing in Siberia. Huck said it gave the plaintiff in that case, a Russian shareholder in a BP affiliate, the right to seize all documents containing the words oil and gas. That's virtually every file in the office.

But when the bailiffs returned on the second day, they hesitated. Instead of seizing all the files, as the order permitted them to do, they locked them in a cabinet inside the BP office and said they would return on Sept. 11 — the eve of Cameron's visit. When Cameron arrived in Moscow on Monday, accompanied by BP's chief executive Robert Dudley, the bailiffs had still not returned, and the cabinet was still wrapped in red police tape. "So it was interesting how the break was timed," Huck said. "In the end, they didn't take anything away, which makes you wonder, politically, what happened."

Politically, even without the BP raid, it was hard to envy Cameron. The relationship between the U.K. and Russia has been in deadlock for several years. In late 2006, a former Russian spy named Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned to death in London with a radioactive isotope, and the British press splashed the image of his agonized face in a hospital bed across their front pages. Investigators soon alleged that the murder was linked to Russia's security agency, the FSB, and requested to interview its officials. They also demanded that Russia extradite Andrei Lugovoi, a former federal agent, to stand trial for the murder. Not only did Russia refuse, citing its constitutional ban on extradition, but Lugovoi soon became a member of the Russian parliament, which gives him immunity from prosecution. London reacted by expelling a few Russian diplomats, Moscow reacted in kind, and high-level diplomatic relations ground to a halt.

Cameron's aim during the visit, the first from a British Prime Minister in six years, was to restore some kind of dialogue. He took a predictable line. Instead of focusing on politics, he advertised the visit as a trade mission, bringing along an entourage of businessmen in the hope that investments could lead to a political thaw. But for many in the British public who had seen the images of Litvinenko wasting away on his deathbed, this seemed like little more than pandering to the enemy. One reporter from the BBC made that sentiment clear on Monday during Cameron's press conference in the Kremlin. "How can you come here and bang the drum for British business while the suspected killer of Alexander Litvinenko is being protected by the Russian state?" the reporter asked. Then he turned to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev: "Can you explain why a British businessman should invest in Russia when he faces the possibility of intimidation, corruption and an inconsistent rule of law?"

Cameron reddened and Medvedev ruffled his brow. But the spirit of their answers was the same: no matter what grievances there may be, Russia is too important a partner for the U.K., and vice versa, for the two to simply stonewall each other. "What we should do, as two mature and sensible countries, is try and see if we can build a relationship that's in our mutual interest," Cameron said. No matter the hassles BP might face from the authorities, Huck said he agreed. "Given Russia's natural-resource position and wealth, it's to be expected that companies like BP and Exxon are here. It's essential," Huck said. "What happened last week with the office raid is part of doing business here, [and] we're clearly not at the tipping point where companies decide that they're not going to do more business in Russia."

It may not be much to celebrate, but the conclusion of Cameron's visit did coincide with some happy news for BP. Less than 24 hours after Cameron finished his talks with Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the Siberian court that ordered the BP raid reversed its position, halting the seizure of BP's documents. In the coming days, BP should be able to remove the police tape from the cabinet containing its documents and return to business as usual. Surely that means resuming its training drills too.