The United Kingdom’s relations with Russia Contents

2Russia in 2017


25.In its 2007 Report, the then FAC observed that “the trend overall in Russia in recent years has been towards a less open and plural political environment, combined with continuing serious human rights concerns”.34 This trend has continued. As the FCO reported in its evidence to this inquiry:

The Russian State exercises a strong degree of control over political life. Parliamentary opposition parties make up 47.1% of the Russian Duma but they, in reality, are able to provide little challenge to government.  The political opposition face significant obstacles, with increasing restrictions on their activity and limited channels for communication with the public.35

26.Vladimir Putin returned to the Presidency of Russia in 2012, having served four years as Prime Minister during Dmitry Medvedev’s single term as President. His return to highest office took place in the wake of widespread protests, particularly in Moscow, sparked by perceived corruption and vote-rigging in the late 2011 parliamentary elections. On our visit to Russia, liberal politicians and academic experts alike described these protests as a key turning point in President Putin’s approach to domestic politics. The experience of 2011, we heard, prompted President Putin to focus increasingly on shoring up his personal popularity by supporting nationalist and populist narratives while marginalising the liberal opposition.

27.The success of President Putin’s approach was evident in the September 2016 parliamentary elections, in which President Putin’s United Russia party won a clear victory in an election notable for the lowest turnout—around 40%—since the fall of the Soviet Union.36 The success of President Putin’s approach is also reflected in his personal approval ratings.37 President Putin’s personal popularity has been achieved through control of the state-run media and being seen to act decisively on the international stage. However, it is important to acknowledge the genuine depth of President Putin’s positive reputation. Professor Alena Ledeneva of University College London told us:

It is a bit unfair to say that the Russian population has been “zombied” by Kremlin propaganda and that there are no alternative ways to receive information. Yes, our television still covers about 89% of the Russian Federation and Channel 1 and Channel 2 are the only channels that cover that much, and it is still a primary source of news and information for Russians, but at the same time, the internet works. There are no restrictions on the internet as there are in China. People would have access if they wanted it. The trouble is that they don’t. They are not interested because they actually agree.38

President Putin is widely expected to seek, and to win, re-election in 2018 at the end of his current term, which would leave him in office until 2024.39

28.Apathy and fear of instability and reprisals among the wider Russian population also have an effect on Russia’s political system. During our visit to Russia, for example, we met a group of students at the University of Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics (ITMO), one of Russia’s major research universities. The students were bright and ambitious, and many planned to use their skills to work abroad or to improve their local communities. We were struck, however, by their apparent lack of appetite for political engagement and by their assertion that no political activity of any kind took place on campus. Students were not prohibited from taking part in political activities or forming political societies but, we were told, simply were not interested.


29.The economic climate that underpinned the Kremlin’s foreign and domestic policies in the 2000s has changed radically. Owing to a combination of falling oil and gas prices and the effect of western sanctions, Russia has entered a recession that saw its economy contract by an estimated 3.7% in 2015, although recent indicators suggest that that contraction has slowed.40 The contraction of the Russian economy must be set against developments in the world economy. The following charts drawn up by the World Bank set out the performance of the Russian economy in relation to a number of key indicators:

Global growth (AE = Advanced Economies;
EMDE = Emerging Market and Developing Economies)

Real GDP growth in the Russian economy

Source: World Bank

Source: World Bank staff estimate

Unemployment in Russia

The relationship between the price of oil and the rouble exchange rate

Source: Rossstat and World Bank staff calculations

Source: CBR and World Bank staff calculations

30.The appointment of liberal reformer Alexei Kudrin as economic adviser to the Russian Government in 2016 might be taken as a sign of President Putin’s willingness to consider wide-reaching reforms to reduce Russia’s dependence on commodities.41 However, the Kremlin may not be willing to take the steps proposed by Mr Kudrin, such as economic decentralisation and judicial reform to tackle corruption.42

31.Russia joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2012, which showed some progress towards the development of an open economy and might have provided the basis for further economic reform. However, TheCityUK, an independent membership body representing the UK-based financial services industry, told us that Russia “is reportedly seen by WTO partners as one of the main actors in the imposition of unjustified trade restrictions on other countries, including WTO members that are its near neighbours”.43 TheCityUK added:

Unusually, in May 2014, eleven WTO members spoke against what they saw as potential Russian violations at a General Council meeting. [ … ] Other members with concerns over Russian trade practices reportedly included Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, Korea, Switzerland, and Taiwan, and Ukraine, among others. [ … ] These are strong and unusually strident criticisms, particularly given that the WTO is a consensus-based organisation, with a degree of tolerance towards challenges commonly faced by newly-acceding members.44

Human rights

32.Human rights are limited and declining in contemporary Russia.45 Human Rights Watch pointed out that

The current human rights situation in Russia under President Putin is the worst it has been since the fall of the Soviet Union.  The Russian authorities have introduced severe restrictions on freedom of association and expression, and political opponents, journalists and NGOs are harassed, threatened, repressed, imprisoned and sometimes killed for their criticisms of state policy. The country’s discriminatory legislation on lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people is used to harass LGBT and disrupt pro-LGBT events and the authorities largely fail to prevent or prosecute homophobic violence.  Human rights conditions in the North Caucasus are also particularly poor, with abusive counter-insurgency operations, attacks on activists and ongoing threats to women’s rights.46

33.The deterioration of human rights is underpinned by the growing official and popular embrace of conservative religious and cultural values which are defined through negative comparisons with western liberal principles. This narrative associates western liberal standards with instability and decline. The Russian mindset was encapsulated by a cartoon tweeted by the Russian Embassy in the UK on 22 October 2016, which depicted a mighty Russian bear posing beside a group of pigs which have hoisted an LGBT pride flag and are standing beneath a Eurozone sign.47

34.Such anti-liberal rhetoric has been reflected in Russian law, particularly on LGBT and human rights issues. In 2013, for example, the State Duma passed a law imposing heavy fines on individuals and groups accused of “promoting” homosexuality to minors in order to protect the “religious feelings of the faithful”.48 The author of that bill, Yelena Mizulina, was also responsible for introducing a recent law that decriminalised some domestic violence offences. Supporters of this provision described the measure as protecting traditional Russian values from encroachment by western liberal ideology.49 However, others have pointed out that domestic violence is a significant issue with suggestions of thousands of spouses being killed by their partners in Russia each year.50

35.In 2012, Russia passed a law requiring any NGO that received foreign donations and engaged in “political activity” to register as a “foreign agent”. NGOs forced to register in this way are subject to additional auditing procedures and must brand any publications or statements with the disclosure that the source is a “foreign agent”.51 Many NGOs have had to close as a result of that law. When we visited Russia, we met representatives of several groups that had been branded as “foreign agents”, including journalists, LGBT rights activists, social science researchers and veterans’ rights advocates. They described the huge practical impediments to their work that resulted from their being labelled in this way, including fines and the imposition of major bureaucratic obstacles. This included a meeting with the Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia which attempts to expose human rights violations committed by the Russian military and is made up of the mothers of Russian soldiers who have served in the Russian military.

36.The 2012 “foreign agent” law was followed by a 2015 provision covering international NGOs. The FCO told us:

In May 2015, President Putin signed a law that allowed for foreign and international NGOs operating in Russia to be labelled “undesirable” if deemed to pose a threat to Russia’s constitutional order, defence capability or national security.  “Undesirable” organisations are prohibited from operating in Russia and are unable to disseminate information, hold public events or use bank accounts for anything other than paying fines incurred under the law. Russian individuals and organisations that cooperate with “undesirable organisations” risk fines and up to six years in prison. The legislation is seemingly an attempt to starve NGOs of international funding.  Organisations labelled “undesirable” to date include the US-based National Endowment for Democracy and the Open Society Foundation.52

In late-2016, the Russian Government branded the international branch of Memorial, a respected Russian human rights organisation, as a foreign agent. The Secretary General of the Council of Europe described the decision as “deeply disappointing”.53

37.Life is very difficult for civil society organisations and activists critical of the Russian Government. During our visit to St Petersburg, the Committee heard testimony from several domestically orientated organisations in Russia, most of which have been labelled as “foreign agents” as a result of criticising the Russian Government. This classification stops them from being able to co-operate with the Russian Government and throws up major bureaucratic hurdles. Human Rights Watch has raised the case of the AGORA Association, one of Russia’s leading human rights organisations, which was closed by a Russian court due to supposed violations of the foreign agents law.54 The organisation has also noted the detention in Crimea of two human rights lawyers who represent prominent Crimean Tatar leaders. Emil Kurbedinov was detained on 26 January 2017, and Nikolai Polozov was detained on 25 January 2017 after representing Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, who were prosecuted on charges associated with their opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.55

Rule of law

38.The rule of law remains “inconsistent and arbitrarily applied” in Russia.56 Former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent 10 years in a Russian prison in the early 2000s, told us that

a significant part of society’s institutions and all state institutions in Russia only appear to resemble what all these names mean here, for example, in Great Britain. In fact their substance doesn’t correspond [to their names]. When they talk about a prosecutor, this is not a prosecutor. When they talk about a judge, this is not a judge at all. Even though he hears the greater part of his cases normally, he is nevertheless not really a judge, but a state employee who imposes punishment.57

39.Anti-corruption campaigner and opposition politician Alexei Navalny was convicted in February 2017 of embezzlement and given a five-year suspended sentence, which will bar him from running against President Putin in the 2018 election.58 He was first tried in 2013, but the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2016 that he had been “deprived… of the basic guarantees of a fair trial”, and that the courts had failed to address the “arguable allegation that the reasons for his prosecution were his political activities”.59 The verdict in the 2017 re-trial reproduced the 2013 judgment almost verbatim, indicating that the ECHR’s concerns remain valid.60

40.When we met human rights activists in Russia and Ukraine who had experienced both the Soviet and the post-Soviet periods, we were struck by repeated assertions that the new regime differed from the old mainly with regard to the lack of ‘rules’. We were told, for example, that Soviet authorities had been required to produce papers before searching the homes of suspected dissidents. By contrast, we heard that today, instead of direct repression by state authorities, proxy groups are allowed—and sometimes encouraged—to harass, intimidate and assault human rights activists, with no clear rules governing their behaviour and little prospect of prosecution in the courts. The evidence that we received on human rights is confirmed by international groups who are concerned about attacks on civil society and disrespect for the rule of law and human rights in not only Russia itself, but Crimea. The Committee shares those concerns.

Russia’s current foreign policy

41.Russia’s dismissive attitude towards rules and norms is, we heard, reflected in its international ambitions and behaviour. Dr Derek Averre, Senior Lecturer in Russian Foreign and Security Policy at the University of Birmingham, argued that

Russia seeks the status of great power once again and, after a difficult period in the 1990s, independence from western interests. It wants to further Eurasian integration, preventing the further encroachment of western influence on its own sphere of privileged interests, as then-President Medvedev called it.61

42.Dr Andrew Monaghan of Chatham House added:

the overall drive of Russian goals on the international stage is first to meet their position as a ubiquitous power—that is, one that has Russia at the centre of the map, stretching across many time zones and many regions in the world. So it is a ubiquitous world power, but the Russian leadership also wants and is trying to create a position for Russia as an indispensable partner. In essence, this means they want and need to have a seat at the table; otherwise they are concerned they will be on the menu.62

43.In order to achieve this ambition, we were told that Russia aims to disrupt, if not completely overturn, the post-war international order that, in its view, has been used since the end of the Cold War to advance the West’s agenda and marginalise Russia. To this end, Russia seizes opportunities to undermine the West’s narrative, both by challenging it directly and by pointing out perceived mistakes or missteps in western countries’ foreign policies. As Dr Andrew Monaghan of Chatham House told us:

First, the Russian leadership is trying to create a sovereign independent state, which would mean that Russia is prepared for, and looking ahead at, a 21st century of instability. Secondly, it means an evolution of international architecture. The post-second world war architecture—Bretton Woods, NATO, the European Union—is no longer relevant in their view, or is becoming decreasingly relevant. Thirdly, Russian foreign policy is increasingly guided towards a counter-colour revolution: colour revolution-proofing Russia first, but also counter-colour revolution, counter-regime change, policy, diplomacy and operations more broadly—including in Syria, as we have seen recently.63

44.Ambassador Yakovenko’s evidence to this inquiry exemplified the Russian revisionist approach to foreign affairs:

Why not integrate Russia and the rest of Europe wholesale immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union? And what we’ve got as a result of that fateful mistake? An irrelevant Nato which has given up on its ‘globalization’ and retreated, almost with joy, to the shell of the territorial defense. It is of no use in finding solutions to the real problems of the XXIst century, i.e. terrorist threat and migration onslaught (in both cases not without a role, played by Turkey, a NATO ally). We have got a dysfunctional EU, which is also due to the lack of imagination and complacency of its core members.64 

Ambassador Yakovenko’s evidence also criticised the West’s approach to the Middle East and North Africa, citing the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 French and UK-led intervention in Libya as evidence of the West’s misplaced “idea that the internal setup in Arab countries could be reordered at will by outside forces”.65

45.The Kremlin has achieved significant success with this approach to international relations. As Sir Roderic Lyne, former UK Ambassador to Russia, stated:

Tactically, President Putin has shown himself to be adroit, opportunistic, disruptive and ruthless in advancing his aims. He evidently does not feel constrained by domestic or international law. As the West, in his view, has abused international law and circumvented the UN, he is free to do so. He argues that the rules of the game were imposed by the USA in the unipolar moment of the 1990s. Russia rejects this status quo. The rules should be rewritten to reflect Russia’s status as a major power and include Russia in Europe’s security architecture—as a decision-maker with the power of veto.66

The link between Russian domestic and foreign policy

46.As the fall in commodity prices and the impact of western sanctions have combined with structural weakness further to undermine Russia’s economy, President Putin’s regime has increasingly relied on projecting a ‘great power’ image abroad to secure its legitimacy at home.67 Dr Valentina Feklyunina of Newcastle University told us:

The transformation of Russia’s foreign policy stems from a variety of factors, including the need to maintain the domestic legitimacy of the regime. We can expect that domestic factors are likely to become particularly important during the next two years as Russia is entering the period of the next electoral cycle. As Russia’s economic situation continues to deteriorate, the Russian authorities in their effort to enhance the regime’s legitimacy are likely to put even more emphasis on what they present as their achievements in the international arena.68

47.This use of foreign policy as a tool of domestic legitimacy is bolstered by a Kremlin- and media-supported narrative that portrays Russia as under constant attack from hostile western powers. Sir Roderic Lyne, for example, describes this narrative as portraying Russia “as having been the victim of western attempts to undermine and humiliate the country.”69 Support for this siege mentality enables the Russian Government to “[use] the defence industry as a locomotive for growth”, in the absence of political will to address the major structural defects in Russia’s economy.70

48.However, Alex Nice of the Economist Intelligence Unit warned against over-stating the domestic popularity of Russia’s activities abroad:

I think there is an important nuance that we need to put on this notion that legitimacy is now about charismatic leadership and the projection of Russia as a great power [ … ] Yes, Crimea boosted the popularity of the President and the Government, but it appears that there is little support for wars involving high casualties. In fact, there was a great deal of sensitivity about Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine, the threatening of journalists who reported on casualties and a great deal of anxiety about the impact domestically of high numbers of casualties or the reporting of such. I think the notion that a downturn therefore means Russia will be seeking conflict everywhere needs to be finessed.71

49.Similarly, Professor Alena Ledeneva argued that the regime’s reliance on foreign policy success will not be sustainable indefinitely, especially if the economic situation worsens:

the current situation in Russia could be described as a fight between television and a fridge. I have to say that the television has been working very effectively to advance Kremlin-driven propaganda to raise support for Putin—popular support for his foreign policy—and for Russian patriotism.72

However, she added that as the proportion of the population who report that Russia is moving in the right direction falls, “the refrigerator is fighting back, which means that the economic position has fallen through”.73 She added: “There is a limit to everything, in the sense that you could brainwash or zombie the state-owned media, but the population only so much. I think that resource has been exploited enough.”74

Russia’s foreign policy goals

50.Foreign policy decision-making in Russia is directed by the Kremlin, and its processes and fundamental drivers are therefore opaque.75 Sir Roderic Lyne observed that

President Putin’s overriding aim appears to be to retain power for himself and his associates. He has no perceptible exit strategy [ … ] I do not believe that [President Putin and his associates] are working to a master plan, and I think they are more concerned to defend their positions than to expand Russia’s territory and global reach. They are conscious of the limitations and constraints on Russia’s power, especially economic weakness. But they seek opportunistically to regain ground lost in the 1990s; and have a vision which is widely shared.76

51.In the long term, Russia’s foreign policy focus on its western borders may be misconceived, because its key strategic challenge arguably lies not to the west but the east, where its relationship with China is defined by potential disputes in relation to territory and resources. Bearing those challenges in mind, the China-Russia relationship may be the critical international relationship in the next 50 years. Sir Tim Barrow pointed out that “the biggest change with regard to Russia and its interests is the growth of China”.77 Lord Truscott told us that China and Russia’s relationship was a “partnership of convenience” and that “there will be no formal alliance between Beijing and Moscow.”78 He added:

Were relationships to improve with the United States on either side, [Russia and China] would quickly move further apart [ … ] In the short and medium term the fact is that they are more concerned about what they perceive as the threat from NATO and the West, which is what is determining their policy currently. That is what is pushing these two unlikely bedfellows together.79

52.The UK Government also appears ill prepared to deal with the challenges of dealing with Russian aspirations in the Arctic and the high north, not least the opening up of the northern sea routes. We look forward to the Defence Sub-Committee’s conclusions in respect of this challenge in its forthcoming Report on Defence in the Arctic.80

53.The Kremlin is prepared to be disruptive in foreign affairs. This opportunist, tactical approach to foreign policy means that Russia is already making strategic mistakes and pursuing short-term advantages rather than advancing a long-term, coherent, sustainable vision for its role in the world. Russia rejects international rules as they are understood by the UK and other western powers, and, in an effort to legitimise its approach, it seizes on every example where we have not lived up to our own standards and takes every opportunity to take advantage of weaknesses, problems and differences within eastern Europe and NATO. It believes that it has a legitimate sphere of influence in former Soviet territory in eastern Europe, that it should have a decisive say over those states’ foreign policy choices and that other nations should recognise its sphere of influence.

54.The Russian assertion that it has a sphere of influence is contrary to the development of the international rules-based order over the past 50 years. UK foreign policy is predicated on a rules-based international order, international law and self-determination, as set out in the Helsinki Accords and the United Nations Charter. Russian foreign policy aims to undermine the current world order, prevent self-determination and independent decisions by neighbouring countries, which it sees as regime change, and to promote Russia’s world view as a legitimate alternative to western values. The Russian Government’s indifference to human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law underpins its foreign policy challenge to the international order and lies at the root of the collapse in UK-Russia relations.

34 Foreign Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2007–08, Global Security: Russia, HC 51, para 49

35 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (RUS0011) para 64

36 Matthew Bodner and Mikhail Fishman, “Elections 2016: an overwhelming victory for the Kremlin”, The Moscow Times, 19 September 2016

37Vladimir Putin’s unshakeable popularity”, The Economist, 4 February 2016

38 Q82 [Professor Alena Ledeneva]

39 The maximum Presidential term was increased from four to six years in 2008 under President Dmitry Medvedev.

40 World Bank, Russia Economic Report, 9 November 2016

43 TheCityUK (RUS0031) para 25

44 TheCityUK (RUS0031) paras 30 — 32

45 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (RUS0011) Annex D

46 Human Rights Watch (RUS0005) Summary

51 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (RUS0011) Annex D, para 1

52 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (RUS0011) Annex D, para 2

54Crimea: Defense Lawyers Harassed”, Human Rights Watch, 30 January 2017

55Russia: Government vs. Rights Groups”, Human Rights Watch, 14 February 2017

56 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (RUS0011) Annex D, para 4

57 Q162 [see footnotes]

59 European Court of Human Rights, Press Release, ECHR 071 (2016), 23 February 2016

61 Q2 [Dr Derek Averre]

62 Q2 [Dr Andrew Monaghan]

63 Q2 [Dr Andrew Monaghan]

64 Russian Embassy (RUS0037) para 10

65 Russian Embassy (RUS0037) para 4

66 Sir Roderic Lyne (RUS0039) para 15

67 Q131

68 Dr Valentina Feklyunina (RUS0030)

69 Sir Roderic Lyne (RUS0039) para 11

70 Q58 [Dr Andrew Monaghan]

71 Q74

72 Q75

73 Q75

74 Q76

75 Q66

76 Sir Roderic Lyne (RUS0039) paras 12, 14

77 Q328

78 Q179

79 Q180

80 House of Commons Defence Sub-Committee, Defence in the Arctic inquiry

28 February 2017