Any possible policy change in British-Russian relations?
24 Feb 2020 10:42
On Dec. 12 Britons elected a new parliament with the Conservative Party securing the majority in a landslide election victory and Boris Johnson re-elected as Prime Minister. Clearly, any new government faces two options regarding its domestic and foreign policies: preserving them or changing them. This article examines whether there is a possible policy change in the UK-Russia relations.
Though the UK and Russia have experienced poor relations in recent years, and years of tension between them have resulted in ‘the worst periods in Russian-British relations since the end of the Cold War’, now there seems a new window, be it the new government or Brexit, is opening for both parties, but how will they use it?
The relationship between Britain and Russia began to be shaken by the poisoning of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London (2006), Russia’s annexation of Crimea (2014) and the poisoning of another former spy, Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury (March 2018), a chemical attack on British soil that threatened the UK’s sovereignty. The Russian government was accused by the UK for orchestrating the assassinations.
Though Russia has always denied any involvement, the UK’s allies were convinced that Moscow was to blame. The Salisbury attack even led to 23 Russian diplomats being expelled from the UK 10 days after the attack by then Prime Minister Theresa May. And, interestingly, even a political novel called From Russia With Blood was published on 19 November 2019 which begins in Salisbury, England, and tells the untold story of how Russia mastered the art and science of targeted assassination.
Another case for tension in the relations was allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum, and the newest argument over Russian interference in British politics arose as the result of the leak and distribution of classified UK-US trade documents1 online which resembled a disinformation campaign uncovered this year that originated from Russia. This accusation was also met with denial from the Russian officials. “Such a persistent term - Russian hacker - is practically used like a fetish in order to distract attention from one’s own problems,”2 Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
In general, cases such as the assassination of former agents have also had a negative effect on how the British public views Russia, so politicians and journalists prefer to present a negative view of the Kremlin.
Boris Johnson: friendly or unfriendly toward Russia?
As the head of the new government, Boris Johnson will lead its country through various policies regarding domestic and foreign issues. But what will be his stance regarding the UK-Russia relations? News define a rather paradoxical behavior of PM and the Conservative Party, in general, regarding the issue of how to deal with Russia. ‘Why paradoxical?’, you may ask. To answer this question, let’s review some of Boris Johnson’s words and actions.
Some say that Boris Johnson was no friend of Russia as UK foreign secretary, so there is no reason to assume that his attitude would change now, and the Kremlin has not much to think about improved relations between Moscow and London after his big win in the UK general election.
Johnson condemned Russia from the start, describing it as ‘a malign and disruptive force’, and later compared Russia’s hosting of the Soccer World Cup (summer of 2018) to Hitler’s Olympics in 1936.3
On interacting with Russia, “Yes, there were lots of reasons to be suspicious, lots of reasons to be wary. But I thought it was possible — I made the classic, classic mistake of thinking it was possible to have a ‘reset’ with Russia,” he commented as Foreign Secretary (September 2018).4
Commenting on what he thought of a reset with Russia, “What I’ve really changed my mind on was whether it is possible to reset with Russia,” he wrote in Spectator on 23 December. “We want to have better commercial relations, we want to have more trade, but it is always so disappointing because we have terrible problems,”5 he added.
Is it a finishing line implying there is no hope for changing the direction of relations or there is more to see?
There are various claims, on the other hand, that major new Russian donations were given to Conservatives as openDemocracy investigation6 has discovered, and Johnson has been accused of ‘cover-up’ over Kremlin interference, though Tory tries to distance themselves from Russian money.
According to this analysis, ‘well-connected Russian oligarchs and companies heavily involved in lobbying for Russian interests have stepped up their funding of the Conservative party in recent months’. Boris Johnson’s government was also accused of delayed publication of a top-secret report on alleged Russian interference in elections: “Now we know one of the reasons Boris Johnson is suppressing the official report into Kremlin penetration of our democracy. It’s because of the substantial and growing links between Russian money and the Tory Party,”6 Labor MP Ben Bradshaw said.
However, Home office minister Brandon Lewis ‘defended his party’s record on accepting cash from oligarchs living in the UK’ and said it was ‘completely normal’ to publish the report after the election.7
Labour also criticized the Conservative party saying that ‘it has taken nearly half a million pounds so far this year from just three wealthy individuals with close ties to Moscow.’8
Though Boris Johnson refused to publish the Russia report, and its content are still unknown, what happened the day after Tory election - Boris Johnson visited a Christmas party in London hosted by former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny9 - tells a lot on the Russian powerful lobby in the UK.
The ‘paradoxical’ behavior rings a bell now? It seems befitting.
But in spite of what is going on behind the scene and whether it can be proved that Russia interfered in British politics, let’s focus on how the relationship between the two countries is unfolding.
How does Russia view the Conservative party’s victory and Brexit?
Though Russian diplomats and officials are always careful to say that Brexit is an internal matter for the UK, a loss of British influence over the EU seems beneficial to Russia. Therefore, the Conservative party’s victory committed to taking Britain out of the EU is welcomed by Russia.
Brexit is beneficial to Russia in two respects. First, it diminishes the UK’s influence in the EU, and as a result, it reduces US influence in it. Second, with Britain out, the EU will be less powerful as well. It’s noteworthy to mention here that Russia feels more comfortable dealing with individual states than with organizations like the EU. And this country has long supported the nationalist right-wing and Eurosceptic parties across Europe to weaken European coherence on the continent.
In addition, the UK, after Brexit, can no longer pursue its hostile policy toward Russia, imposing sanctions for example, because this could lead to further damage to Britain’s long-term ability to influence Russia.
But what is interesting here is the Kremlin’s mixed messages regarding its attitude to Brexit. As already mentioned, Brexit and a weakened EU benefit Russia, but we see, on the other hand, that the Kremlin officially argued that a united EU could make a much better and stable trading partner for Russia. And some say that Brexit even offers Moscow a chance to improve its ties with the rest of Europe, as Britain was Russia’s sternest critic.10
Any hope for improved relations?
Though British government officials have accused Russia of committing war crimes in Syria, violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, getting involved in British politics or poisoning Russian former agents living in the UK or being responsible for cyber threats, no evidence have been published to support their claims.
Recently, the Russian Embassy in London has welcomed the report, titled ‘The United Kingdom’s relations with Russia,’ on the ‘deplorable state’ of the Russia-UK relationship, and says it supports the re-establishment of a ‘genuine political dialogue’ between the two countries.11
Experiencing a better relationship requires both sides, instead of focusing on their differences, identify issues of common interest. An issue like foreign investment comes first to mind in this regard, as UK is one of the important foreign investors in Russia, and Russian investment in the UK, on the other hand, with the presence of Russian oligarchs in London and the amount of capital they bring to this country is considerable.
Both sides have also shown great willingness to cooperate on areas of counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing. Moreover, they have both found common ground in the past regarding the negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal or the NATO-Russia Council, as well as the United Nations Security Council.
Though there may be no immediate prospect of an improvement in the dire relations between London and Moscow, nothing is definite yet. Time will show how Boris Johnson will navigate British-Russian relations during and after Brexit.
Author: Shahrzad Maftooh is an expert on European affairs
1. According to the documents, the ruling Conservatives were plotting to offer up the state-run National Health Service (NHS) for sale in trade talks with Washington.
2. Kremlin Laughs Off Allegations of Possible U.K. Election Meddling, Dec. 3, 2019.
3. Boris Johnson compares Russian World Cup to Hitler's 1936 Olympics, Patrick Wintour, 21 Mar 2018.
4. What has Boris Johnson said about other countries and their leaders?, 24 July 2019.
5. Boris Johnson: I was wrong about Russia, 23 December 2019.
6. Revealed: Russian donors have stepped up Tory funding, Peter Geoghegan, Seth Thévoz, 5 November 2019.
7. Tory minister says Russian donors have right to ‘invest in’ British political scene, Lizzy Buchan, 14 November 2019.
8. Tories have 'ongoing relationship with Russian money,' says Labour, Luke Harding, 8 Nov 2019.
9. Johnson visit to Lebedev party after victory odd move for 'people's PM', Luke Harding and Dan Sabbagh, 22 Dec 2019.
10. Brexit: A Chance For Russia To Rebuild Bridges?, James Rodgers, Sep 4, 2019.
11. Russian Embassy Welcomes MPs’ Calls For Dialogue Amid ‘Deplorable State’ Of UK Relations, December 14, 2019.