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British PM: Engage With Putin 'But Beware'

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May spoke to U.S. congressional Republicans in Philadelphia.
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May spoke to U.S. congressional Republicans in Philadelphia.

The West should engage with Russia but remain wary about Moscow’s intentions, British Prime Minister Theresa May has said in the United States.

Addressing Republican lawmakers on January 26 ahead of a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, May alluded to former President Ronald Reagan’s approach to talks with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev.

"When it comes to Russia, as so often it is wise to turn to the example of President Reagan who -- during negotiations with his opposite number Mikhail Gorbachev -- used to abide by the adage 'trust but verify,'" May said.

"With President [Vladimir] Putin, my advice is to 'engage but beware,'" she added.

May delivered the remarks shortly before her meeting in Philadelphia with Trump, the U.S. president's first face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader since he took office last week.

She used the speech to stress the importance of the "special relationship" between the two countries in addressing global challenges such as terrorism.

"So we -- our two countries together -- have a responsibility to lead. Because when others step up as we step back, it is bad for America, for Britain, and the world," May said in a speech that was repeatedly interrupted by enthusiastic applause from the audience.

At the same time, she said, "This cannot mean a return to the failed policies of the past."

"The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over. But nor can we afford to stand idly by when the threat is real and when it is in our own interests to intervene," May said. "We must be strong, smart, and hard-headed."

May defended the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has sharply criticized, but said the pact easing sanctions against Tehran in exchange for the curbs on its nuclear program should be "very carefully and rigorously policed."

She delivered sharp criticism of Russia, in particular over its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea territory, which she called "illegal."

Trump says he wants greater cooperation with Russia on issues like counterterrorism and Syria, and he suggested during his presidential campaign that he could lift sanctions that the Obama administration slapped on Moscow in response to the annexation.

Trump’s election has also been dogged by allegations from the U.S. intelligence community that Russian hackers meddled in the campaign in a bid to help him win the White House.

The Kremlin denies the allegations. Trump has conceded that Russia was likely behind cyberattacks targeting the campaign of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, but insists that the hacking had no impact on the outcome of the election.

Trump has also made fellow NATO members in Eastern Europe nervous by referring to the alliance as "obsolete."

In her speech, May voiced firm support for allies in the region, saying the West should "give assurance to Russia's neighboring states that their security is not in question."

"We should not jeopardize the freedoms that President Reagan and [former British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher brought to Eastern Europe by accepting President Putin's claim that it is now in his sphere of influence," she said.

May added, however, that "there is nothing inevitable about conflict between Russia and the West, and nothing unavoidable about retreating to the days of the Cold War."

"But we should engage with Russia from a position of strength, and we should build the relationships, systems, and processes that make cooperation more likely than conflict," she said.

With reporting by Reuters
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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