The United Kingdom’s relations with Russia Contents

4UK policy towards Russia

Current engagement

131.Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the FCO, in addition to participating in international sanctions, decided to:

132.Inter-parliamentary dialogue between Russia and the West shrank in parallel with the decline in Government-to-Government communications. NATO Parliamentary Assembly withdrew Russia’s Associate Membership of the Assembly in March 2014 following Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea.187 Similarly, the Russian delegation was temporarily suspended from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in April 2014.188 This suspension lapsed in 2016, when the Russian delegation decided not to submit its credentials for ratification. This means that Russian parliamentarians are not currently represented in the Parliamentary Assembly, although Russia remains a full member of the Council of Europe.

133.The last visit to Russia by a British Minister took place in December 2015, when then FCO Minister of State David Lidington met First Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov in Moscow.189 By contrast, United States Secretary of State John Kerry and Assistant US Secretary of State Victoria Nuland each visited Russia twice in 2016. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier met Foreign Minister Lavrov and President Putin in Moscow in March 2016, while Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel also travelled to Moscow for talks with the Russian President in September 2016.190 Similarly, France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Marc Ayrault, met President Putin in Moscow in April 2016.191

134.Despite the suspension of most mechanisms for Government-to-Government dialogue with Russia and the relative absence of high-level ministerial visits, FCO Minister of State Sir Alan Duncan insisted that there is “a constant series of encounters” between British and Russian Ministers. When we pressed Sir Tim Barrow to provide examples of such encounters, he replied:

There are bilateral meetings as well. For instance, there was a bilateral meeting between the Foreign Secretary and Sergey Lavrov in the margins of the UN General Assembly. That was a proper sit-down bilateral meeting, at which there was discussion of many of the issues we have discussed today. There have been telephone conversations—11 August, 12 September and 22 November are the dates that have been proffered to me—between the Foreign Secretary and Sergey Lavrov. So there is contact, to answer your question.192

135.Professor Alena Ledeneva of University College London, however, criticised the UK Government for failing to respond effectively to Russian diplomatic overtures:

When I look at policies towards Russia, what I see is a lot of missed opportunities. Those occur every time you have some initiative from Russia. For example, when Dmitry Medvedev in his presidency wanted to co-operate on EU security issues, there were no takers. These kinds of moments are where the policy failure is best seen. That was a chance to actually engage around the agenda, and it could have transformed the process, but there is always a sharp no. The way the Russians see it is that everything that comes from Russia is met with a no, but everything that comes from the West is imposed on them as if they are the inferior partner.193

136.The Russo-British Chamber of Commerce wrote in their evidence to this inquiry that its members had “a number of concerns”, including

The long periods there have been when, it has seemed to us as interested observers, there has been little or no dialogue between the UK and Russian governments. In business, solutions are sought through engagement. We have the impression that that has not been happening, or not to a sufficient degree.  That impression may be mistaken, but perception is important (particularly for example to a UK SME manufacturer / potential first time exporter to Russia) and the perception has been of little or no direct engagement and a vicious war of words through media. We know that the Russians do not respect this approach, and nor does quite a large part of the British business community. The question then arises as to the FCO’s current experience of dealing face to face with Russians.  The Russian approach is direct, sometimes confrontational. To gain their respect one has to be prepared to be equally direct and forceful.194

137.Dr Monaghan stated that

there is no clear, coherent policy at NATO level, European Union level or UK national level of where we want to be with the Russians in, say, 2020, so the end of this parliamentary term. There is no lengthy public discussion [ … ] policy often seems to be very reactive, in a constant state of surprise, and that makes the discussion of negotiations and diplomacy quite difficult.195

138.However, he added that “before we start to engage with the Russians for the sake of engaging with them, we have to work out what we want from the Russians and what the Russians might want from us.”196

139.Sir Alan Duncan told us that the FCO would like to follow a policy of “respectful engagement”.197 When we asked Sir Alan what Russia wants from the UK, he could not offer a clear answer:

Maybe respect? I don’t think there is an easy answer to that. Although I have dealt with Russians over many years in the oil business and subsequently in politics, I am not perhaps as deeply immersed in their thinking as to be able to answer that question.198

Sir Alan then invited Sir Tim Barrow to comment. Sir Tim stated:

I think the Minister is absolutely right: [Russia] wants respect. It would like to see development on economic relations. I think the Russians would like us to see the world more like they do, but on that one I’m afraid the differences will continue. Clearly, they would rather that we did not have such profound disagreements with regard to Georgia or Ukraine or some of our actions in Syria, but I think they are also looking for some sort of common ground, potentially, on the question of terrorism with the West.199

140.The UK Government has recently begun to indicate greater willingness to engage directly with the Russian leadership. Speaking at Chatham House in December 2016, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that Britain could not “normalise” relations with Russia because of its actions in Ukraine and Syria, but added that neither he nor the Prime Minister “will relent in [their] pressure or in delivering those messages face to face”.200 In a speech in Philadelphia in January 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May said:

When it comes to Russia, as so often it is wise to turn to the example of President Reagan who—during his negotiations with his opposite number Mikhail Gorbachev—used to abide by the adage “trust but verify”. With President Putin, my advice is to “engage but beware”.201

We agree with the Prime Minister.

141.We visited Russia in May 2016, where we met Russian Ministers, civil servants and parliamentarians. Although those exchanges were occasionally uncomfortable, we judged that some interaction with Russia is preferable to no interaction, if only to maintain the basis for a more positive relationship in future, to clarify areas of disagreement and to de-escalate points of difference. We therefore welcome recent indications that the Government is willing to consider more direct, face-to-face engagement with the Russian leadership. While engagement for engagement’s sake has merit, albeit limited, in sustaining contact, it is not a substitute for dialogue with a purpose. We are not convinced that the FCO and Government Ministers have identified what Russia wants from the UK, or what, if anything, the UK should seek to accomplish through bilateral engagement with Russia.

142.The FCO should clarify what the UK wants to achieve in its bilateral engagement with Russia. This should involve dialogue on specific issues, such as counter-terrorism, cybersecurity or aviation security, in order to establish both points of agreement and points of difference. Having established its terms of reference, the FCO should conduct a meaningful and regular political dialogue with the Russian Government, including at the highest ministerial levels. Ministers should conduct this dialogue in a spirit of frankness and honesty, based on clear analysis of the UK’s immediate and long-term strategic goals for its relationship with Russia. There is also scope for facilitating non-governmental contact in partnership with the EU and other allies.

143.The UK Government must explore ways constructively to engage with Russia in order to improve its record on human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law. The FCO must also work closely with other international partners and through the UN Security Council better to understand and to respond to the current Russian foreign policy and its ‘sphere of influence’ strategy.

144.The UK should give further consideration on how to respond, including with others in the international community, more robustly to Russia’s indifference to human rights and rule of law, which undermines the international rules-based order.

Making sanctions more effective

145.Mikhail Khodorkovsky concluded that sanctions against individuals might be more effective than sectoral sanctions.202 Vladimir Ashurkov expressed the same view:

I think those personal sanctions can be extended, because there are many more people who are directly responsible for the annexation of Crimea, which was this brutal redrawing of European borders-the first one on such a scale after the Second World War. On the meddling in eastern Ukraine, the death toll is being counted, but it is around 10,000 people now. So personal sanctions can be extended, and I think they have been quite effective because, for Russian kleptocrats, it is very important that the money and the wealth that they obtain in Russia can be legitimised in the West for property purchases, business interests and so on.203

146.William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, explained why, in his view, sanctions targeted on individuals were effective:

What you have to understand about personalised sanctions is that every Russian in the regime is terrified of getting added to one of these lists. They might put on a brave face when they get added to the list, but behind the scenes, they are absolutely horrified and it completely changes their life. There is nothing worse than being sentenced to life in Russia.204

147.Individuals associated with the Putin regime who are reportedly responsible for gross human rights abuses or violations use British financial and legal services, invest in British property, holiday in the UK and send their children to British schools. The UK Government could influence those people’s behaviour by introducing and utilising the civil recovery powers set out in the Criminal Finances Bill to seize assets held in the UK. The introduction of such powers would deter other Russians from committing or commissioning gross human rights abuses or violations.

148.Sanctions imposed on Russia owing to its actions in eastern Ukraine and Crimea are currently agreed and applied by EU Member States. The FCO must clarify how the UK would impose sanctions post-Brexit, explain whether Brexit would entail changes from the current sanctions regime and analyse the costs and benefits of the possible models for future UK-administered sanctions. We expect the FCO to publish its analysis of how the UK would impose sanctions post-Brexit by March 2018.

Response to propaganda

149.The Russian Government has spent significant sums on funding media such as RT and Sputnik News to advance its narrative on world affairs in the UK and elsewhere in the West. RT, which launched its first international news channel in 2005, received 17 billion roubles (£200 million) in funding from the Russian state in 2015.205 However, it has a relatively small market share in the UK. In December 2016, it captured a 0.04% share of total viewing. In comparison, BBC News secured 1.11% of total viewing while Sky Sports News, which is only available to subscribers, secured 0.47%.206 Sputnik News, which is owned by the Russian Government-funded news agency Rossiya Segodnya, has an annual operating budget of around £1.8 million.207

150.On 23 November 2016, Members of the European Parliament agreed a Resolution condemning Russian propaganda. The Resolution was approved by 304 votes to 179, with 208 abstentions. The Resolution stated that

the Russian government is employing a wide range of tools and instruments, such as think tanks [ … ] multilingual TV stations (e.g. RT), pseudo news agencies and multimedia services (e.g. Sputnik) [ … ] social media and internet trolls to challenge democratic values, divide Europe, gather domestic support and create the perception of failed states in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood.208

151.RT and Sputnik News portrayed themselves in their evidence as editorially independent, providing fact-based analyses that offer different points of view from the mainstream western media.209 Anna Belkina of RT told us that

there seems to be a bit of a knee-jerk reaction and a rather harmful trend to dismiss a voice that is saying something different simply for challenging the established narratives on particular issues.210

Sputnik News disputed the claim that it operates as a propaganda machine for the Kremlin.211 However, in evidence to the Committee its representative, Oxana Brazhnik, could not provide any examples of reporting that criticised Russian military actions.212

152.Since RT started broadcasting in the UK, Ofcom has recorded breaches by RT of UK broadcasting rules on 14 occasions.213 In November 2014, Ofcom found that RT’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis in March 2014, and specifically events leading up to the annexation by Russia of Crimea, breached its rules on due impartiality. Ofcom put RT management “on notice that any future breaches of the due impartiality rules may result in further regulatory action, including consideration of a statutory sanction”.214 In September 2015 Ofcom found RT in breach of the impartiality rules in its coverage of the events in Ukraine and Syria. It also upheld a complaint by the BBC that RT’s allegations that the BBC Panorama programme had faked parts of a report on the Ghouta chemical attack in Syria were “materially misleading”.215

153.The rise of fake news in the UK is a real concern. Key questions as to RT and Sputnik’s impartiality, integrity and actual news stories remain unanswered. The UK regulator should continue to take action against examples of outright falsehoods in Russian state-sponsored broadcasting. But the ability of broadcasters such as RT and Sputnik to operate in the UK should be considered a sign of British strength. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are core British values in which the UK has justifiable confidence. These values lie at the heart of Britain’s soft-power challenge to the current Russian regime. Conversely, restrictions on the operation of international and domestic media in Russia reveal the Kremlin’s fear that its narrative will not prevail in free and open debate.

Russian language broadcasting

154.In recognition of the reach and impact of the Russian Government’s information campaign, the BBC World Service announced its largest expansion since the 1940s in November 2016.216 Although welcome, this announcement also inadvertently supports the contention of agencies such as RT and Sputnik that their operations are analogous to those of the BBC World Service.217

155.For this reason, the Government must be creative in its endeavours to counteract Russia’s information campaign, especially in Russian-speaking regions of states such as Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. On our visit to Ukraine, we were encouraged by the work of independent organisations such as Stop Fake, which receives support from the British Council.

156.We welcome the increase in funding for the BBC World Service to enhance its broadcasting into Russia and neighbouring states. Looking beyond such broadcasting, the FCO should also increase its support for independent media in order to provide the Russian people and those living in neighbouring states with a broad range of perspectives.

European Convention on Human Rights

157.In evidence to this inquiry, the FCO wrote that

In December 2015, President Putin signed a law allowing Russia’s Constitutional Court to overrule judgments by the European Court of Human Rights where they are deemed to contradict the Russian constitution.  In failing to implement European Court rulings, Russian officials have previously sought to justify their position by likening their stance to that of the UK on Prisoner Voting Rights.  We continue to reject this comparison and assert the distinction between our approach to a difficult case and those of member States such as Russia who make no real attempt to engage. Russia has for some years been the Council of Europe Member State with the highest number of claims brought against it to the European Court of Human Rights.218

158.In 2013, the Joint Committee on Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill noted that the UK, as a founding member of the Council of Europe, was regarded as “the best pupil in class”, and that the example it set would be used by other states to justify their actions.219 The report concluded that refusing to implement the ECHR’s judgement on Prisoner Voting Rights in the UK would “give succour to those states in the Council of Europe who have a poor record of protecting human rights and who may draw on such an action as setting a precedent that they may wish to follow.”220

159.The Government is reportedly considering withdrawing from the ECHR when the UK has withdrawn from the EU.221 When we met human rights activists in St Petersburg, they unanimously urged the UK not to withdraw from the ECHR, because of the message that such an action would send to the Russian authorities. They argued that if the UK were to withdraw from the ECHR, it would weaken the Europe-wide consensus on human rights and undermine protections in Russia. Human Rights Watch advanced the same argument:

The UK government’s proposals on the European Convention on Human Rights, specifically the suggestion that they will ignore rulings of the Court that the UK doesn’t like, is an invaluable gift to Russia and other governments who routinely violate basic human rights protections.  The Russians have recently taken their own steps to undermine the European Court.  But the UK’s credibility in raising human rights concerns with Russia would be gravely undermined by UK withdrawal from the Convention or the attempt to selectively apply its rulings.222

160.UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights would risk sending a signal to Russia that it can freely disregard international human rights norms at home and abroad, and would undermine UK support for the work of human rights groups in Russia. It would also deprive the UK of a key source of soft power and influence among reformers and human rights activists in Russia. In order to maintain international standards on human rights, the UK Government should not withdraw from the ECHR and should make it clear that no such step is contemplated.

186 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (RUS0011) para 22

187 NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Russia, accessed 23 February 2017

189 Foreign and Commonwealth Office,Minister for Europe David Lidington visits Moscow”, 23 December 2015

190 Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia, Meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, 23 March 2016; “German Vice Chancellor Gabriel flies to Moscow for Putin talks”, Deutsche Welle, 21 September 2016

191 Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia, Meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, 19 April 2016

192 Q414 [Sir Tim Barrow]

193 Q100 [Professor Alena Ledeneva]

194 Russo-British Chamber of Commerce (RUS0009) para 7.3

195 Q19 [Dr Andrew Monaghan]

196 Q63 [Dr Andrew Monaghan]

197 Q332

198 Q338 [Sir Alan Duncan]

199 Q338 [Sir Tim Barrow]

201 Prime Minister’s Office, Prime Minister’s speech to the Republican Party conference 2017, 26 January 2016

202 Q135

203 Q122

204 Q148

205 Q288

206 Broadcasters’ Association Research Board, Monthly viewing summary (December 2016), accessed 9 February 2017

207 Sputnik UK (RUS0041) para 27

209 Sputnik UK (RUS0041) paras 9–13; Anna Belkina, RT (RUS0042) para 1.1

210 Q271

211 Sputnik UK (RUS0041) para 2

212 Qq245–251 [Oxana Brazhnik]

214 Ofcom, Broadcast Bulletin, Issue number 266, (10 November 2014), p 22 (footnote)

215 Ofcom, Broadcast Bulletin, Issue number 288, (21 September 2015), p 45–46

217 Sputnik UK (RUS0041) para 2; Anna Belkina, RT (RUS0042) para 2.6

218 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (RUS0011) Annex D para 3

219 Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill, Session 2013–14, Report: Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill, HL Paper 103, HC 924, para 109

220 Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill, Session 2013–14, Report: Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill, HL Paper 103, HC 924, para 113

222 Human Rights Watch (RUS0005) Summary

28 February 2017