There are two quick and cynical responses to what has become over the past decade an almost eternal question: how can relations between the UK and Russia be, if not improved, then at least stabilised. The first would be to observe that relations have, in fact, been quite stable for most of that time - stable at a rock-bottom setting of very bad, verging on non-existent. The second would be to suggest that maybe both sides like it that way, or at least that it suits their interests.
It is hard to know how far back to date the deterioration, as bilateral relations have been far from normal for most of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. I would start with what now seems like ancient history: the UK’s decision to grant political asylum to the Russian media tycoon, Boris Berezovsky, and several leading Chechen opposition figures, which led to London becoming a centre for anti-Putin opposition activity. This was in 2003.
UK officials might start with the death - by radiation poisoning - of another political exile, Alexander Litvinenko, shortly after he had become a British citizen in 2006. Twelve years later, in 2018 - and two years after a British judge had ruled on the basis of largely secret testimony that Litvinenko had been killed in an FSB operation, “probably ordered by Vladimir Putin” - there was what may or may not have been an assassination attempt against the double-agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in Salisbury. Investigative journalists started to re-examine the deaths of other Russian exiles in the UK and point fingers at the Russian state.
Once in a while there have been efforts on both sides to start a rapprochement - including the designation of 2014 as the Year of Russian culture in the UK. Alas, like so much in UK-Russia relations, the initiative turned out to be disastrously mistimed: 2014 was the year of Crimea and the start of military conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Rather than a cultural thaw, which might classically have led to a political thaw, what happened was a new round of US, UK and EU sanctions and some even sharper anti-Russian rhetoric from London.
Then in June this year, a new theatre of hostility was opened when a British destroyer, HMS Defender, with a BBC crew aboard, set its course across the Black Sea through Crimean waters - apparently with the highest UK government approval. Mercifully, the dispute remained in the realm of presentation and rhetoric. But the incident was seen - including by many, including in the UK - as a gratuitous and risky provocation towards Russia.
The latest exhibit in what is now a rather long and sad list of UK-Russian non-understanding might be the enforced departure from Russia of the BBC’s correspondent, Sarah Rainsford. Targeting a journalist always guarantees a high profile because, as a group, we like to defend our own and we have a platform. Rainsford herself is interpreting her departure as part of a much worsened media climate in Russia - which the Russian Foreign Ministry denies.
There is, though, a slightly different way of looking at it; it could have been a lot worse. Technically, Rainsford was not expelled; her visa was not renewed. She and the BBC insist that the effect is the same, but in diplomatic terms there is a difference. The Russians and the British also seem to agree on the reason: a UK refusal of a visa to a Russian journalist - in other words, a tit-for-tat action reminiscent, alas, of the Cold War.
This suggests that, rather than Rainsford being targeted for her reporting, Russia wanted to send a message to the UK government via the BBC as the public broadcaster. This failed, as it was likely to,so Rainsford has had to leave Russia.
Other tensions have rumbled on in the background. In 2016, a former UK MI6 officer, Chris Steele, was involved in compiling a dossier that contributed to a US campaign first to prevent Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency and then, when he won, to thwart his hopes of improving relations with Russia.
The pandemic also precipated a new round of UK-Russia antagonism, with a very public slanging match over the merits of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine and Russia’s Sputnik V. This particular quarrel seemed especially strange, given that the two endeavours had signed an agreement on cooperation in late 2020, which was praised by Putin.
Afghanistan would be one reason - a big reason - why. President Biden’s decision to honour Donald Trump’s agreement with the Taliban and complete the US withdrawal from Afghanistan left other Western forces, including those from the UK, with no option but to leave, too - although some very senior British military and political figures were unusually open in their dissent.
But the Afghan withdrawal served to underline some stark realities for the UK. After leaving the European Union - an exit which was completed at the end of 2020 - the UK government was open about placing even more faith than before in its relations with the United States and its place in the Nato alliance. This position has not only been voiced repeatedly by ministers, but it was a major theme of the Integrated Review of security, defence, development, and foreign policy, that was published last spring, as the blueprint for British foreign and defence policy after Brexit.
There was surprise in some quarters that the review seemed only to reinforce the UK’s already hawkish line towards Russia, which it said would “remain the most acute direct threat to the UK”, whereas it accepted a need to deal with China. The review mentioned the Skripal case and also called for greater efforts to counter Russian disinformation campaigns. In other words, there was to be no softening of Russia policy, even as the UK took on more obligations in the “Indo-Pacific” which seemed irreconcilable with the UK’s actual military capabilities.
One possible explanation for the framework set out in the review was a belief in London that Joe Biden’s election as US President meant that transatlantic relations would return to “normal”, and the doubts Donald Trump had raised about Nato would melt away. The difficulty for the UK is that the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan has called much of that thinking into question.
For the EU, it has reopened the debate about whether the EU needs to beef up its own defence plans - as Emmanuel Macron of France has argued. But the UK has rejected the EU and now seems to be a less than special partner of the United States. It looks marooned in mid-Atlantic. How much sense does it now make for the UK to continue as the standard-bearer for the anti-Russia hawks in Washington and parts of Europe, if neither has much interest in the UK?
The official view from London would be that the hostile line towards Russia is grounded in “our values”, including respect for “the rule of law” - to which Russia would object that, with Iraq and Libya for a start, the UK has betrayed any commitment it might have had to the “rule of law”. The argument about “values” is certainly at the heart of some of the deeper UK-Russia differences - but so might be the UK’s reluctance to admit that it, too, has been scarred by the loss of empire.
On the other hand, Russia does retain influence in many of the countries of Central Asia, including through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which could help smoothe future evacuations from Afghanistan, provide corridors for aid deliveries to Afghanistan, and mitigate future flows of refugees. This could be help the UK would - quietly - welcome, perhaps reducing some of its open hostility in return.
Another promising area could be the climate change conference to be held in Glasgow in November. The UK is keen that this should be a success, to show both that Brexit Britain can be a global diplomatic force, and that the UK can emulate what was seen as the French triumph at Paris in 2015. Hopes for such a success are fading, however, with China rejecting commitments it was expected to make.
Russia, on the other hand, has surprised many with its collaborative attitude towards climate change, following recent forest fires and worries about infrastructure damage from thawing perma-frost. If the UK could bring itself to recognise Russia’s concerns and efforts in the run-up to COP26, that could not only improve the prospects of success at Glasgow, but provide a basis for more productive bilateral relations.
As an importer of Russian gas, the UK might also follow the US in accepting the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and set about working with Russia to make the European energy system as environmentally friendly and politically neutral as it needs to be. There is no point now in sniping from the sidelines.
So there are areas of mutual interest that could, if recognised, improve the tone, if not the substance of UK-Russia relations. That said, however, a peculiarity of the public hostility of recent years has been how trade relations - another big UK interest post-Brexit - have continued relatively unscathed. Sanctions have barely touched the energy sector, where the UK’s trade interests with Russia mostly lie.
And now could be the time for both countries to start making the change. With Joe Biden following a less predictable course than envisaged and UK relations with the EU likely to remain cool on all fronts for some while, the UK is not in the place, diplomatically, that it might have wanted or expected when it left the EU. It looks smaller and less powerful and it has fewer friends than it anticipated. If the UK can contrive - albeit slowly and quietly - to have one fewer enemy, that could at least reduce the number of unpleasant surprises, on both sides, coming down the track, and that would be a start.