The United Kingdom’s relations with Russia Contents

1UK-Russia relations since 1991: Divergent perspectives

11.The current tensions between Russia and the UK stem in large part from differing interpretations of events following the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to the mainstream western narrative, which was summarised by the former UK Ambassador to Russia Sir Roderic Lyne, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s “the West sought to integrate Russia progressively into the Euro-Atlantic community and pursued a vision of a strategic partnership”.14 These efforts included supporting Russia, along with other members of the former Soviet Union, to become fully democratic and to develop a market economy, welcoming it into the G8 and establishing mechanisms such as the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council (PJC) to integrate Russia into the Euro-Atlantic security architecture.

12.The FCO’s written evidence to this inquiry encapsulated this western understanding of the post-Cold War period. The FCO told us that

From the end of the Cold War, the West’s broad objective had been to try to promote Russia’s integration into the international system and global economy, and build a strategic partnership with Russia.

The UK was at the forefront of this approach. Following the dissolution of the USSR, the UK moved swiftly to establish diplomatic relations with the newly-independent Russian Federation and to develop a strong and productive bilateral relationship.  We sought to address Russia’s fear of perceived NATO encirclement by supporting the establishment of a formal relationship through the NATO-Russia 1997 ‘Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security’ (NRFA). We strongly supported Russia’s inclusion into a wide range of multilateral organisations and groups, including the Council of Europe in 1996, the G8 in 1997, and its accession to the World Trade Organisation. The UK was also active in providing technical support to Russia in its transition from a planned economy to a market one.15

13.Most Russian commentators advance a different narrative describing the events of the 1990s and early 2000s. When we visited Russia in May 2016, politicians and academic experts repeatedly told us that among both the political elite and the wider Russian public the 1990s are seen as a period of domestic turbulence and international humiliation. From the official Russian perspective, the West took advantage of Russia’s relative weakness by ignoring its legitimate interests in the post-Soviet space and the western Balkans and by refusing to reorganise the Euro-Atlantic security architecture to include them.16 For example, the Russian Federation regarded the NATO-Russia Council not as a meeting of equals, but as a forum where it was told what NATO intended to do. Moreover, in Russia’s view, the eastward expansions of NATO in 1999 and 2004 broke verbal guarantees that had been given to Russia at the time of German re-unification and the provisions of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act.17

14.The evidence submitted to our inquiry by the Russian Ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, also set out a narrative of the post-Cold War period that contrasted sharply with that advanced by the FCO. Ambassador Yakovenko explained how Russia perceives the 1990s and the consequences of what he regards as the West’s aggressive behaviour:

The unilateral decisions made in the early 90-ies set [Russia and the West] on a collision course, having predetermined, in somewhat Darwinian way, this [sic] negative dynamics. Without revisiting those we can hardly cope with today’s problems. I truly believe that given the experience of the past 25 years we could find better, truly collective solutions, which, I agree, might have been difficult to contemplate in the climate of the ‘victory in the Cold War’ euphoria. It goes without saying that the end of the Cold War had never been prepared intellectually. Perhaps, all share the blame for that. But, still, it is natural to expect more sense and magnanimity from those who are strong and stable as opposed to those who are undergoing momentous upheavals in their societies [ … ].

In the expert community and among political observers it is increasingly believed that the West made a fundamental blunder, when decided to expand NATO Eastwards. The strategy of combined expansion of the Alliance and the EU moved the dividing lines in Europe closer to Russia’s border instead of doing away with them once and for all. It was short-sighted and petty-minded to hedge against Russia’s revival. It worked like a self-fulfilling prophecy [ … ] Had we thought things through jointly, we would have saved ourselves the greater part of the present trouble, first of all in Europe, but also in the Middle East and other places. We would have a collective security system in Europe, that works and allows us to act jointly and timely in the European periphery.18

15.The FCO acknowledged that Russia understands the post-Cold War period differently from the West, but portrayed this narrative as a deliberate, and somewhat recent, attempt by the current Russian leadership to justify a more aggressive foreign policy:

The current Russian leadership sees the immediate post-Cold War period as a period of humiliation during which the West took deliberate advantage of Russia’s relative weakness. Since 2000 this perception has driven a more aggressive, authoritarian and nationalist policy, the objective of which is to reassert Russian interests more forcefully and tilt the strategic balance of power in its direction. In the process Russia has increasingly defined itself in opposition to the West.19

16.This Russian view of the period is disputed by NATO itself, individual NATO Governments and by many independent commentators. For example, Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, wrote:

No treaties prohibiting NATO expansion were ever signed with Russia. No promises were broken. Nor did the impetus for NATO expansion come from a “triumphalist” Washington. On the contrary, Poland’s first efforts to apply in 1992 were rebuffed. [ … ] When the slow, cautious expansion eventually took place, constant efforts were made to reassure Russia. No NATO bases were placed in the new member states, and until 2013 no exercises were conducted there. A Russia-NATO agreement in 1997 promised no movement of nuclear installations. A NATO-Russia Council was set up in 2002. In response to Russian objections, Ukraine and Georgia were, in fact, denied NATO membership plans in 2008. Meanwhile, not only was Russia not “humiliated” during this era, it was given de facto “great power” status, along with the Soviet seat on the UN Security Council and Soviet embassies. Russia also received Soviet nuclear weapons, some transferred from Ukraine in 1994 in exchange for Russian recognition of Ukraine’s borders. Presidents Clinton and Bush both treated their Russian counterparts as fellow “great power” leaders and invited them to join the Group of Eight—although Russia, neither a large economy nor a democracy, did not qualify.20

Other commentators have gone further in addressing this point. For example, historians Christopher Clark and Kristina Spohr stated:

In recent years, the tendency to misremember past debacles as humiliations has emerged as one of the salient features of the Kremlin’s conduct of international affairs. Amid recriminations over US and western European interventions in Kosovo, Libya and Syria, the Russian leadership has begun to question the legitimacy of the international agreements on which the current European order is founded. Among these, the centrepiece is the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany of 12 September 1990, also known as the Two-plus-Four Treaty because it was signed by the two Germanys, plus the US, the Soviet Union, Britain and France. Yet the claim that the negotiations towards this treaty included guarantees barring NATO from expansion into Eastern Europe is entirely unfounded. In the discussions leading to the treaty, the Russians never raised the question of NATO enlargement, other than in respect of the former East Germany. Regarding this territory, it was agreed that after Soviet troop withdrawals German forces assigned to NATO could be deployed there but foreign NATO forces and nuclear weapons systems could not. There was no commitment to abstain in future from eastern NATO enlargement.21

17.Those divergent perspectives are not as new as the FCO suggested. In February 2000—one month after Vladimir Putin became Russia’s acting President and one month before his official election to the office—the then Foreign Affairs Committee noted that

the early pro-western stance of the Yeltsin regime has shifted towards a more independent “Russia first” stance. The psychological difficulties faced by the Russian political and military élite in adjusting to a new role in the 1990s are manifest in their attempts to ensure that international relations are based on a multi-polar world, as opposed either to the bipolar world of the Cold War or to a unipolar world of US supremacy.22

18.The 2000 FAC Report also documented the growth in tension between Russia and NATO, noting that there was “a negative view of NATO across the political spectrum in Russia”.23 The then FAC identified the severe damage that NATO’s actions in Kosovo in 1999 had done to NATO-Russia relations.24 It also noted that NATO’s 1999 enlargement to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic had been “viewed in Russia as a threat to its security” and warned that any future enlargement would need to be handled with sensitivity:

We accept the Government’s argument that no third country can be allowed to veto the enlargement of NATO, but nonetheless recommend that enlargement must be considered sensitively in the context of Europe’s security as a whole. One important element of this is Russia’s relationship with NATO, which enlargement has clearly harmed.25

The overall conclusion of the 2000 Report was that the FCO “must continue and develop its critical engagement with Russia in the mutual interest of our two European countries.”26

19.The divergence in viewpoints between Russia and the West had become further entrenched by 2007, when the then FAC next reported on Russia. The 2007 FAC Report opened by exploring how Russia’s “increased assertiveness [ … ] manifested in a range of ways and across a range of policy fields”.27 It explained the different ways in which Russia and the West had interpreted the “colour revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003–04. And it noted that many western leaders, “especially in the US [ … ] framed the events in terms of what the US Administration sees as the global battle for freedom and democracy”.28 The 2007 FAC Report stated that

Russia’s perception of many recent developments in Europe and the post-Soviet space as losses rests on a continued view of the West as Russia’s competitor, and of international politics as a zero-sum affair [ … ] Zero-sum thinking and fears of encirclement are deeply rooted elements of the dominant Russian worldview which persist into Moscow’s new foreign policy thinking.29

20.The then FAC believed that Russia’s “more assertive” foreign policy would persist well into the future, even though Vladimir Putin was due to step down from the Presidency in accordance with the Russian constitution. The 2007 FAC Report concluded that

driven partly by changes in Russia’s economic position, and partly by the cumulative effects of the country’s post-Cold War relations with the West, the results of Russia’s recent rethinking of its international role are likely to endure beyond the presidential election scheduled for March 2008.30

21.The 2007 Report criticised the FCO’s understanding of Russia’s point of view:

[The] FCO’s approach to Russia still seems to consist of very general statements of Russia’s importance, accompanied by issue-by-issue dealings in practice [ … ] We are not assured that the FCO is sufficiently thinking through, in a coherent fashion, the possible implications of Russia’s foreign policy shift.31

22.The Russian perception of encirclement by the West was reinforced by the conclusions of the NATO Bucharest summit in April 2008. At this meeting, Albania and Croatia were invited to join the alliance. However Macedonia was not invited to join due to its ongoing dispute with Greece over its name. Encouraged by strong support from the USA, Georgia and Ukraine had hoped to join the NATO Membership Action Plan, which they saw as a step towards future full membership. However as a result of strong opposition from several European states, particularly France and Germany, the Alliance declaration merely stated “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO”.32 However, it was decided to review that request in December 2008. This decision was seen by many as a significant victory for President Putin, who in his speech at the Bucharest summit stated that “The emergence of a powerful military bloc at our borders will be seen as a direct threat to Russian security [ … ] The efficiency of our co-operation will depend on whether NATO members take Russia’s interests into account.”33

23.Four months after the Bucharest summit, worsening relations led to a war in August 2008 between Russia, Georgia and the Russian-backed self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Since then Russian forces have continued to occupy these parts of Georgian territory, and Russia has now signed treaties to incorporate both their economies and armed forces into the Russian Federation. At NATO summits, since 2008, including in Wales in 2014, although NATO has consistently reaffirmed its willingness in principle to admit Georgia, it has continued to stipulate that the next step toward doing so is a MAP comprising reforms and other criteria that any aspiring NATO member states must meet to qualify. To date, neither Georgia nor Ukraine has been formally offered such a MAP, either because doing so would bring into clearer focus the time frame for admission, or because NATO’s existing members are divided over whether the military and strategic benefits of admitting them outweigh the damage to NATO-Russian relations that would inevitably result.

24.From the perspective of Russia, western powers took advantage of a period of relative Russian weakness under Boris Yeltsin in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union to enlarge both the European Union and NATO. From the perspective of western European countries and the United States, membership of political or economic alliances is a matter for sovereign decisions by the applicant countries if they meet the criteria for membership, and Russia can have no veto on such matters. Moreover, both NATO and the European Union believe that they offered the hand of friendship to Russia in assisting in the process of economic and political reform and democratisation. That hand of friendship was rebuffed after President Putin came to power. The different narratives of Russian and western foreign policy thinking have been well documented, including in the reports of our predecessor Committees. Despite those warnings, we do not believe that our policymakers have adequately considered the full implications of the differences between western and Russian understandings of this period of history or have drawn the correct, albeit uncomfortable, conclusions from it. However, given the Russian leadership’s apparent intent to develop a siege mentality, particularly for domestic purposes, it is uncertain to what extent constructive engagement would have been possible. There is also a need to understand why states on the Russian Federation’s fringe feel threatened. Western, including UK, policy must accept a share of responsibility for the current state of relations.

14 Sir Roderic Lyne (RUS0039) para 7

15 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (RUS0011) paras 8–9

16 Sir Roderic Lyne (RUS0039) para 11; Mary Dejevsky (RUS0007) paras 2.2—2.3

17 Foreign Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2007–08, Global Security: Russia, HC 51, para 22; Defence Committee, First Report of Session 2016–17, Russia: Implications for UK defence and security, HC 107, para 10

18 Russian Embassy (RUS0037) introduction and para 10

19 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (RUS0011) para 9 (box)

20 Anne Applebaum, “The myth of Russian humiliation”, The Washington Post, 17 October 2014

22 Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 1999–2000, Relations with the Russian Federation, HC 101, para 58

23 Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 1999–2000, Relations with the Russian Federation, HC 101, para 81

24 Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 1999–2000, Relations with the Russian Federation, HC 101, paras 83–84

25 Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 1999–2000, Relations with the Russian Federation, HC 101, para 86

26 Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 1999–2000, Relations with the Russian Federation, HC 101, conclusion

27 Foreign Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2007–08, Global Security: Russia, HC 51, para 10

28 Foreign Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2007–08, Global Security: Russia, HC 51, para 24

29 Foreign Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2007–08, Global Security: Russia, HC 51, para 29

30 Foreign Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2007–08, Global Security: Russia, HC 51, para 34

31 Foreign Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2007–08, Global Security: Russia, HC 51, para 38

33Stay away, Vladimir Putin tells Nato”, The Telegraph, 5 April 2008

28 February 2017