The bilateral relationship between the United Kingdom and Russia is at its most strained point since the end of the Cold war. This is because Russia and the UK have fundamentally different perceptions of recent history and the current international order. UK foreign policy is predicated on the maintenance of the rules-based international order and of international law, self-determination for sovereign nation states and the promotion of human rights and freedom of expression. Russia’s post-Soviet experience and the apparent self-interest of the governing elite has led to a Russian foreign policy which more or less explicitly rejects and undermines that order and the principles on which it relies.
Refusal to engage with the Russian Government is, however, not a viable long-term foreign policy option for the UK, because Russia is a European nuclear-armed United Nations Security Council member state. The UK can communicate with the Russian Government without ceding moral and legal legitimacy or sacrificing its values and standards. Such conversations might well prove uncomfortable, but they would at least allow the clarification of specific points of agreement and points of difference on issues such as counter-terrorism and provide a basis for progress towards improving relations, if and when the time is right. To that end, we recommend the commitment of increased FCO resources to enhance analytical and policymaking capacity and the appointment of an FCO Minister with more specific responsibility for Russia.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria constitute the two most urgent foreign policy challenges to the UK-Russia relationship. Ukraine must choose its own future. The UK and its allies should support Ukraine in developing resilience to further Russian encroachment and in building its social, political and physical infrastructure, which will facilitate further engagement with the West and allow Ukraine to engage with Russia on a more level playing field. While it may be increasingly difficult to sustain a unified western position on Ukraine-related sanctions, unilateral sanctions targeted on individuals, as set out in the Criminal Finances Bill, would enable the Government more effectively to hold to account people associated with the Putin regime who are responsible for gross human rights violations or abuses.
In Syria, UK Government officials have accused Russia of committing war crimes but have not published evidence to support their claims. The Government is right to call out the Russian military for actions that potentially violate International Humanitarian Law. However, if the Government continues to allege that Russia has committed war crimes in Syria without providing a basis for its charge, it risks bolstering the Kremlin’s narrative that Russia is held to unfair double standards by hostile and hypocritical western powers.
The British and Russian people have healthy cultural relations despite the ongoing political difficulties. Bearing that point in mind, the Government must look beyond President Putin and reach out to the Russian people through mechanisms such as educational exchanges and support for small businesses in Russia in non-sanctioned sectors. A people-to-people strategy building bridges with the next generation of Russian political and economic leaders could underpin improved UK-Russia relations in the future.
28 February 2017