LONDON (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin, a black belt in judo, may spar with Britain’s prime minister in the diplomatic arena over Syria at a judo match during the London Olympic Games, British sources said on Tuesday.
Sources close to British Prime Minister David Cameron said he would accompany Putin, a former KGB agent, to a match if the Kremlin leader attends the Games, and is likely to press him over Syria.
Last month Putin’s spokesman said he might make his first visit to Britain in nine years to watch the judo contest at the Games, which start on Friday. The British sources said it was not yet clear whether Putin would be coming to London.
Russia has faced growing Western criticism of its position on Syria, with countries like Britain demanding Moscow drop its support for President Bashar al-Assad.
An impromptu meeting will give Cameron an opportunity to put pressure on Putin over Russia’s opposition to U.N. sanctions against Assad’s government, one British source said.
Putin, a one-time judo champion in his native city of St Petersburg, has sought to advance his macho image at home by releasing photographs of himself practicing judo, saving wild tigers and riding a horse bare-chested in Siberia.
His diplomatic stance on Syria has been tough, as well.
Russia, which has a right of veto on the U.N. Security Council, provides arms to Syria and has repeatedly blocked Western resolutions calling for foreign intervention since the uprising against Assad’s rule began 16 months ago.
Putin says Syria’s crisis must be resolved through negotiations, not force, and that ousting Assad would not necessarily lead to peace.
Britain, like other Western nations, has strongly criticized Russia’s position. British Foreign Secretary William Hague last week described Russia’s and China’s vetoes of a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria as “inexcusable and indefensible”.
Relations between Britain and Russia have been frosty since the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who died from poisoning by radioactive polonium-210. Many of Putin’s foes have also received asylum in Britain.
Cameron visited Moscow last year, ending a four-year period during which Putin had no high-level contact with British officials.
Editing by Maria Golovnina and Sonya Hepinstall