Grim-Faced Theresa May Shakes Putin’s Hand, Then Rips Into Him

(Bloomberg) -- It wasn’t a conversation among friends. When Theresa May and Russian President Vladimir Putin met at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka on Friday for their first formal talks since 2016, the atmosphere in the room was icy.

The discussion that followed, lasting one hour and 20 minutes, might not have helped. According to a British government statement, May “told the president that there cannot be a normalization of our bilateral relationship until Russia stops the irresponsible and destabilizing activity that threatens the U.K. and its allies -- including hostile interventions in other countries, disinformation and cyber attacks."

The source of greatest tension between May and Putin is over the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in southwest England last year. Britain and its allies blame the nerve agent attack on Russia.

In an interview before the meeting, Putin insisted there was no proof and traded barbs with May. The British leader demanded Russia hand over the two suspects behind the attack.

The statement from May’s office said "she was clear that the U.K. has irrefutable evidence that Russia was behind the attack" and "wants to see the two individuals responsible brought to justice."

May also took issue with Putin over his claims in an interview with the Financial Times that liberal democracy is now obsolete. She told him Britain will "unequivocally defend liberal democracy," according to the statement.

May is due to stand down as British prime minister next month but she received support from the favorite to replace her, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson. He told the Evening Standard newspaper in London that history will show Putin is mistaken about the death of liberal values, adding that his experience showed British leaders always want a re-set of relations with Russia but Russia always lets them down.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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