David Cameron's visit to Moscow is about keeping doors open, or more likely – keeping doors ajar. There are too many unknowns for both the British and Russian governments for it to be otherwise.
London is bound to be more preoccupied by the gathering storm in the EU, by the hesitant performance of the US economy, and by the evolution of the Arab world than it is by its relationship with Moscow. Both countries have their domestic worries too. The ruling group in Moscow is working out how best to hang on to power after the current electoral cycle ends next year.
If either party wanted to score points, the chance is there. The NATO-led campaign in Libya has disturbing implications for Moscow’s rulers, though they will also have noted the disunity of NATO and Britain’s military limitations. The UK has not forgotten what happened to Alexander Litvinenko, or to Sergei Magnitsky. Russian courts and their inconsistent judgments remain a barrier to British investment, and add to Russia’s questionable image in the West. The Russian government, and considerable parts of the Russian public, view London as an irritating member of a Western coalition determined to resist Moscow reclaiming its rightful role in the world, not least in its immediate neighbourhood.
But this trip is more likely to be a moment for politeness rather than bickering. For all the obstacles, both Russia and Britain have considerable business interests to protect and promote as best they can. The intergovernmental relationship has been strained but the wider relationship between the two countries has been, and remains, substantial. The details of the relationship are different from the superficial picture of a relationship between Moscow and London which is 'correct but insincere' – as the Yugoslavs under Tito put it of their interaction with the Soviet Union.
Russia is at a moment of choice. Its future domestic trajectory will determine how the British-Russian relationship develops in the longer-term, along with Russia’s positioning with the rest of the world. The ruling authorities have reason to believe that they can control the outcome of the December parliamentary elections, to say nothing of the election of their chosen candidate for President in 2012.
What is less clear is what either of those achievements will mean in the long-term. Russia is now even more dependent on its energy sector than it was when the global economic crisis hit it with particular severity in 2008, while its pre-electoral budget spending, including on instruments of internal control, has increased to a level that will continue to deepen that dependence.
At the same time there is a widespread recognition including at the top, that change, including institutional change, is needed to correct this imbalance. Choosing either greater central control or more liberal development has its risks. It is in the interests of Britain to work with Russia towards the second.