‘Nervous’ Putin exploded during ‘aggressive’ meeting with Tony Blair

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Sir Tony Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former political relationship is one of the more confusing bonds in recent history.

Only this year did the former UK Prime Minister state that “one thing is clear: Vladimir Putin cannot be allowed to win”.

Things were completely different 20 years ago when Sir Tony was in power and Putin had recently become Russian President after the resignation of Boris Yeltsin.

Papers released by the National Archives last year show that in early 2001, Sir Tony believed Putin’s presence in Western political discourse was vital, and even urged for him to be given a seat at the world’s “top table”, despite misgivings voiced by officials.

This was at the turn of the century, a whole year after Sir Tony and Putin had one of their first encounters when the ex-PM travelled to St Petersburg on a controversial “unofficial state visit”.

Sir Roderic Lyne, who was at the time serving as British ambassador to Russia, travelled with Sir Tony and witnessed first-hand his rise and consolidation of power.

The entourage attended a new production of War and Peace at the Mariinsky Theatre, and while spirits were high, Sir Roderic says he detected early on that Putin was “quite nervous” and “wasn’t at all sure how to play the leader”.

The topics discussed included Chechnya — a sensitive issue at the time as the first Chechen war had only recently ended and the second started.

A brutal winter siege had reduced the Chechen capital of Grozny to rubble and dust, leaving many homeless and angry at Moscow and its new president.

Express.co.uk previously reported that Sir Roderic recalled of the trip: “We got on to Chechnya, too, which was a subject of massive concern in the West.

“There was a lot of criticism of the way the Russians were conducting it. Putin would become very aggressive and defensive.

“He would go into a long, very emotional, slightly angry monologue in order to cut off the stuff that he didn’t want to answer.”

The following month Putin made the reverse trip, travelling to London to meet with Sir Tony. The visit also included an invitation to visit Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

A joint press conference between the two leaders was set up, in which Putin launched into a “rambling rant” about Chechnya after a journalist asked a question about the war.

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Sir Roderic said: “That just sets Putin off and he got very angry. He gave a very long, highly coloured answer. Blair’s looking very embarrassed.

“He’s just saying how wonderful things are. And then there’s this guy ranting and raving about Chechnya. It was that side of Putin coming out.”

The former diplomat said he concluded very early on that Putin had two sides: ” “There were two Putins: Putin, the rational pragmatist who was trying to improve Russia.

“And then the other Putin: very insecure, slightly paranoid, a rough boy from the back streets of St Petersburg, an ex-KGB officer who had been brought up in and believed in the Soviet Union.”

The golden era of UK-Russian relations mostly ended after the fatal poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, an event that many say was given the green light on Putin’s watch.

When Moscow refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoy — wanted by British police for the murder of Litvinenko – Britain expelled four Russian diplomats.

Russia in turn expelled four British diplomats, the episode still relatively raw in British-Russian relations.

Things only worsened in 2014 when Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and nosedived after the 2018 Skripal poisonings in Salisbury.

Virtually all ties were broken off between the two countries when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.

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