by RAY FLEMING
IT'S a safe bet that relations between Vladimir Putin's Russia and the West will be one of the key issues of 2007. Despite President Putin's denials that anything untoward is happening it is hard to ignore his power–play over energy supplies to some of Russia's neighbours, the bullying of Shell over the Sakhalin gas project and the continuing sequence of murders of his critics. The Litvinenko case has also heightened anxieties, yet it was probably the forced closure of the British Council's language centre in Moscow last week that most clearly indicated the worryingly poor state of Anglo–Russian relations. For eight years the centre has been tutoring Russians in English and until last week had 1'500 students; yet those running the centre were so harrassed by bureaucratic demands that in the end they felt there was no alternative to closing their doors. Clearly someone was sending the British Embassy and London a message that actually had nothing to do with teaching English. At the weekend a Sunday Telegraph leader was headed, “Time to stand up to the Russians” and suggested that Mr Putin should be treated “like any other dictator”. If only it were that simple. Both Britain and the United States have been guilty of patronising Putin, of interfering in Russian politics and its relations with former parts of the Soviet Union. Unless Putin goes back on his undertaking to step down as president next year he should not be called a dictator or treated as one.

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