London: David Miliband headed off for the first visit by a British Foreign Secretary to Russia for five years on Sunday, seeking to mend relations damaged by the poisoning in London of a Kremlin critic.
As Miliband embarked on his two-day visit, the British government said it could not "spare" him to be the European Union's foreign affairs chief amid growing speculation that he is in line for the new role.
Miliband's trip to Moscow coincides with the third anniversary of the poisoning of former spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, but Russia refuses to extradite the KGB agent-turned-lawmaker who is the chief suspect in the murder.
A row over the status of the British Council and disputes over the ownership of Russian-British oil giant TNK-BP have added to mutual distrust over the Litvinenko case, resulting in an unprecedented degradation in ties.
Writing on his blog, Miliband said a better relationship was essential for both countries.
"We don't always see eye to eye with Russia, but we share the same global challenges and it is important that we work on them together.
"The wealth of people-to-people contacts and the dynamic business links which have grown between Britain and Russia over the last 20 years make political engagement all the more important," he wrote.
While top officials from Latin American and Asian states have made regular stops in Moscow in recent years, the last serving British foreign secretary to visit for bilateral talks was Jack Straw in July 2004.
Miliband was due to arrive late on Sunday before holding talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Monday.
There appears little chance of Russia wavering in its refusal to extradite Litvinenko murder suspect Andrei Lugovoi.
British police accuse Lugovoi of murdering Litvinenko, possibly by lacing his tea with radioactive polonium in a London hotel on November 2, 2006. He died three weeks later after suffering intense pain.
Lugovoi, who denies involvement in Litvinenko's death, was later elected to the Russian Parliament for a generally pro-Kremlin party.
London responded to Moscow's refusal to hand him over by expelling four Russian diplomats from Britain, prompting Moscow to respond with a tit-for-tat measure.
As well as looking to overcome the problems in bilateral ties, Miliband will be looking to secure Russian support for tough sanctions against Iran if the current round of diplomacy over its nuclear programme fails.
"We're going to talk substantively about Afghanistan, substantively about Iran, substantively about the Middle East," Miliband told the Financial Times recently.
Meanwhile, a senior British government figure responded to a newspaper report that Prime Minister Gordon Brown was conducting a secret campaign to help Miliband become the EU's top diplomat by saying he was needed at home.
The deputy leader of Brown's Labour party, Harriet Harman, said she could understand why Miliband featured in rumours for the new role because he was a politician of "international standing".
But she told BBC television: "We can't spare him. I don't think he wants to go -- and we'll be keeping him here."
Miliband's insists publicly that he is "not a candidate and not available".
The Sunday Times said Brown was discreetly backing Miliband, as the chances of former British premier Tony Blair becoming EU president appeared to be fading.
The roles of president and High Representative for Foreign Affairs are set to be created when the EU's Lisbon Treaty is ratified.
An unnamed official from Brown's office told the newspaper: "Behind it all there is very careful consideration being given to David getting this job."
First Published: Sunday, November 01, 2009, 20:00