Every now and again you hear a snatch of a radio bulletin or glimpse a newspaper headline and wonder where on earth it might have come from – so disconnected does it seem from everything else that is going on. This was my response to a recent front-page in the British Guardian newspaper that said: “Revealed: UK push to strengthen anti-Russia alliance”.
What the article said was that the UK intended to use four upcoming international meetings to build on the solidarity Western countries had shown when they agreed on the recent expulsions of Russian diplomats. The idea was “to call for a comprehensive strategy to combat Russian disinformation and urge a rethink over traditional diplomatic dialogue with Moscow”. It said this was a response to the Kremlin’s “aggressive campaign of denials over the use of chemical weapons in the UK and Syria”.
Now it should not take much ingenuity to understand that such forms of words are unlikely to originate with the journalist who wrote the article. They bear all the hallmarks of officialdom – in this case, the Foreign Office. And the meetings where the UK intends to pioneer its policy are the summits of the G7, the G20, Nato and the EU. The term “containment” was also mentioned, with the UK, it would appear, seeing itself as a latter-day disciple of George Kennan and his approach to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
So where did this come from, why now? Why an alliance against Russia? And for what?
First, the move appears to reflect what the UK sees as its great success in persuading not only most of its EU partners, but the United States, to expel Russian diplomats after Salisbury. That many of the diplomats (on both sides) were nearing the end of their assignments and that most will be replaced makes the reciprocal expulsions less substantial than they might seem. Appearance – an appearance of toughness - is what this was about. It is also about convincing itself, and others, that London has the capacity to lead, even with the shadow of Brexit hanging over it. In other words, this statement of intention seems designed to show that fears of a weakened UK voice internationally after Brexit are unfounded.
How far the UK will be able to mobilise others to unite against Russia – or even make Russia a central theme - at these summits, however, is another matter. The G7 in June, chaired by Canada, could have a pro-Ukraine sub-theme, but will otherwise be primarily economic. The EU summit is likely to have other topics than Russia at the top of its agenda. Nato will be an easier task, as countering Russia has once again become the alliance’s chief mission, but bolstering financial contributions, especially from Germany, could be at least as important.
The least promising forum for such a British enterprise is likely to be the G20 summit, which will be held in Argentina in July. This is partly because Argentina is in the grip of an economic crisis, which is likely to loom large for participants, but mainly because Russia is a member of the G20 and the composition of this group generally shows more understanding of Russia. So a sympathetic hearing here for any UK “containment” project is less likely.
Second, it is possible that the UK wanted to put down a marker not just for its own continuing international relevance post-Brexit, but also to set a tough tone at the start of Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term. The effect of that, however, depends not just on the UK and its allies – old, and perhaps new – but on what foreign policy Russia pursues. And it may well be that some EU members, and maybe the United States as well, will prefer not to rush to judgement and wait a while to see what this new presidential term might bring.
The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement creates new uncertainty in the Middle East, where Russia is already a key player, and France and Germany may try to breathe some new into the Minsk agreement on Ukraine. In short, not all those who signed up to expel a couple of Russian diplomats may be so keen to set a sour note at the beginning of President Putin’s new six years. And how many EU members will be prepared to accept UK leadership for even one branch of policy just as the UK is scheduled to leave?
Third, it is worth asking: why Russia? The easy answer combines the Salisbury incident and the reported Syrian government chemical attack in Douba. It is an easy target. But another answer that is almost as easy would be that the UK’s relations with Russia are already so bad,, making them worse would cost the UK very little diplomatic or political capital.
Then again, if the UK’s objective is to reconsider what it calls “traditional diplomatic dialogue” with Russia, what does it propose instead? There has been concern for some years – especially in top Western military circles - that the lack of formal or even informal channels for communication is creating conditions that are as, if not more, dangerous than the actual Cold War. Those who express such concerns want not less diplomatic dialogue, but more.
And while the UK, because of its geographic position and its renewed sense of being apart from Europe, may have the luxury of turning its back on Russia, how many others would follow? The UK can isolate itself, but isolating Russia, or imposing “containment” is not something it can do alone.
So where has this plan to head an anti-Russia alliance come from and how serious is it? For sure, there are plenty of Foreign Office officials and MPs who would support an even harder UK line against Russia. But there may be domestic reasons, too, for such a plan to have emerged now. Could it, for instance, be a vanity project on the part of a Foreign Secretary keen to remind his colleagues of what it sees as his great post-Salisbury success? Or might it be part of the bidding to set the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy priorities? Then again, could it be no more than a useful diversion at a time when the UK seems removed from the big international issues of the day – Syria, Iran, Korea – and bogged down in Brexit?Whatever the reason, however, it is probably premature for anyone in Moscow or Washington, or even London, to become too worried. If you look at the Foreign Office website and scan its list of foreign policy priorities, you will look in vain for “Russia”. And if you follow the invitation to search for other priorities, you will be told: “0 policies containing Russia from Foreign & Commonwealth Office.” That’s right; zero.