Putin approach to May preceded 'reopening of diplomatic channels'

30 May 2019, 18:23 | Updated: 30 May 2019, 21:03

An approach by President Vladimir Putin to Theresa May last year preceded the reopening of some diplomatic channels closed since the Salisbury spy poisoning, Sky News understands.

The Russian leader spoke briefly to the prime minister at the sidelines of a G20 summit of world leaders in Argentina in November.

It was not a formal bilateral meeting.

A Whitehall source said: "That's where the reaching-out happened."

Two senior British officials visited Moscow this month to meet Russian counterparts as part of what a second source described as a "slightly more constructive series of engagements".

But sources said this should not be viewed as a thawing in relations, which have been at a post-Cold War low since the March 2018 novichok poison attack on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter Yulia.

Even when high-level planned engagements were suspended after Salisbury, Britain's strategy has always remained to engage with Moscow on matters of international security because that is in the UK's national interest, it is understood.

The first source said: "The Russians have reached out. We have been very clear there will be no business as usual until you (Moscow) accept responsibility for Salisbury."

Sky News can reveal that Philip Barton, director general, consular and security, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, travelled to Russia earlier this month.

He was in Moscow to discuss security issues given that Russia and the UK are both permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, a source said.

Christian Turner, one of Britain's two deputy national security advisers, travelled to the Russian capital after Mr Barton.

Dr Turner's trip was first reported by The Times.

The source said: "We want to keep open some of the channels that were closed (after the Skripal incident).

"We want to make sure that the Russians are understanding the messages we are trying to deliver."

This includes the desire for Russia to appreciate the context behind military exercises involving British forces in Eastern Europe and not think they are a sign of aggression.

London and Moscow have a shared position regarding a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that the United States has withdrawn from.

This is another area of discussion.

In addition, communication is desirable on the conflict in Syria, where Russia is a key backer of President Bashar al Assad, while Britain is an arch opponent of the Syrian regime.

This includes making clear that if the Assad regime were to use chemical weapons again on its people it would be met by a military response as happened the last time, a source said.

The United States, Britain and France launched coordinated strikes against Syrian targets in April 2018.

Despite the renewed level of contact, the first source said the Salisbury attack remains at the centre of discussions with Russia.

Britain believes Russia's military intelligence agency the GRU carried out the poisoning.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement.

As well as the resumption of certain forms of dialogue, there has also been a slight rebound in the number of Russian diplomats posted in the UK.

There are 44 Russian diplomats in Britain, up from 40 in January, according to official records revealed in The Times.

Russia had 58 declared diplomatic staff registered last spring when Mrs May expelled 23 "undeclared intelligence agents" in the wake of the novichok poisoning.