Could the UK Change Its Russia Policy?

New UK governments, even when formed by the same political party, often start out by reviewing the policies of their predecessors, with defence and security being a favourite area. So it is with the government of Boris Johnson. One of the first moves he announced after the Conservatives won their 80-seat parliamentary majority in December was the launch of just such a review.

Except that it is not quite the same as such reviews in the past. Johnson calls it “an integrated security, defence and foreign policy review” - in other words, it will include diplomacy and foreign relations as well as the usual defence and security aspects - and it will look back not just over the five years since the last review, but over the last 30 years, the whole period since the end of the Cold War.

The obvious explanation, of course, is the new situation created by Brexit. Between 1990 and the 2016 referendum, the UK was committed to membership of the European Union, and saw its future as part of that bloc, albeit while retaining its “special relationship” with the United States. And, until Boris Johnson’s recent election victory, there was still some doubt whether Brexit would happen. Those doubts are now gone.

Hence, the purpose of this review - as set out in the government’s legislative programme as presented on 19 December - is “to reassess the nation’s place in the world, covering all aspects of international policy, from defence to diplomacy and development”. This means that it will it be much broader in scope than any of its recent predecessors, with the potential to revisit not just the substance, but the overall direction, of UK foreign policy.

Brexit Won the War, Will it Win the Peace?
David Lane
The implications for the future of the European Union will also depend on how successful the UK becomes as an independent actor. If the new UK government under Johnson can introduce positive policies promoting evenly spread economic welfare, then this will unquestionably energise the populist Euro-sceptic movement in Europe.
Expert Opinions

Given this wide brief, it would be strange if such a review did not also consider our fractious relations with Russia. And if its purpose is really to “re-assess”, rather than just “assess”, UK policy, this suggests that Mr Johnson (a former Foreign Secretary, remember) is not happy with the status quo and may be looking for change. Could that change include the UK’s approach to Russia?

At first sight, the disappointing answer - at least for those of us who hope for an improvement - has to be No. Ever since he became Prime Minister last summer, Boris Johnson has used every opportunity to represent the same hard line towards Russia as his immediate predecessor, Theresa May. He has done his best to avoid high-level public meetings with Russian officials, and given no sign whatsoever that he sees any prospect of a thaw. 

His every mention of Russia to date has underlined the official UK position that the Russian state was responsible for poisoning the double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter - who are still by the way incommunicado and apparently under UK jurisdiction nearly two years later. Russia’s involvement in Syria, and differences over Ukraine and Crimea are all part of the mix. It seems there is no softening on the UK side, and certainly no meeting of minds.

When he encountered Vladimir Putin at the Libya conference in Berlin last month /january/, Johnson looked severe and averse to more than minimal conversation - at least for the benefit of the cameras. Some of the terse official statement from Downing Street after the meeting is worth quoting, if only to illustrate the current state of UK-Russia relations as seen from London.

“He /Johnson/ was clear there had been no change in the UK’s position on Salisbury, which was a reckless use of chemical weapons and a brazen attempt to murder innocent people on UK soil.... The Prime Minister said there will be no normalisation of our bilateral relationship until Russia ends the destabilising activity that threatens the UK and our allies and undermines the safety of our citizens and our collective security.” So there!

For all the frost, however, it should not necesarily be concluded that there is no hope at all of any change. As demonstrated by his handling of the Brexit negotiations and how he set about “selling” his deal to his Conservative colleagues, Boris Johnson is a master of saying one thing with great conviction to please a crucial constituency, then proceeding to do something a little - or even a lot - different.

The dispute with the EU over keeping an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is a good example. In the end, Johnson agreed to a customs border that will be drawn down the Irish Sea - something that was, and remains, anathema to many in his own party and to many Protestants in Northern Ireland. Johnson blurred some of the definitions, but this is essentially what has been agreed.

Similarly, it would be possible to argue that Johnson may be taking a particularly hard line against Russia in public, in order to convince hawks in the defence and foreign policy establishment that he is on their side, even as he prepares to take a different course. There were reports that when Johnson was Foreign Secretary, certain intelligence information was kept from him because the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the security chiefs did not trust him.  If that is true, then he may well want to show that he can be at least as tough on Russia as they are, in an attempt to win their confidence.

The UK’s Fine Foreign Policy Line Post-Brexit
Mary Dejevsky
Few can have imagined that what might be called London’s transatlantic dilemma would pose itself so sharply so soon - in fact even before the UK had formally left the EU. Nor that it would take so many forms.
Expert Opinions

As of now, it is not evident whether what he has been saying about Russia since he became Prime Minister is what he really thinks - or not. In much of his journalistic writing over the years, he came across as much more of a “realist” in foreign policy than an ideologue. He showed the same pragmatic approach during his two terms as London Mayor. So it is not impossible that the purpose of his defence and foreign policy review is to sound out the various experts and interest groups with a view - possibly - to finding reasons for change.

It is early days, of course, and the review process has barely begun. But it is already clear that a number of powerful lobbies are worried. Some of the first objections came from certain military and defence quarters, who wanted the focus to be narrowly on traditional areas, such as manning and equipping the armed forces - as it always has been in the past. 

The fear among the top brass seems to be that placing military spending in a much wider context - taking foreign policy rather than military capability first - could force reconsideration of some priorities that have long been taken for granted. And their fear may not be unfounded. Johnson’s chief aide, Dominic Cummings, has been outspoken in his criticism of procurement methods and overspending and would like radical change.

Feathers could be ruffled in foreign policy and intelligence circles, too. If the review is going to look right back to the end of the Cold War, then that could reopen several discussions: about the UK’s response to the Soviet Union’s collapse; about the wisdom of retaining and then expanding Nato; about the UK’s alignment on Russia policy with the United States and the new Nato countries of East and Central Europe, rather than, say, with Germany and France.

This does not mean that there would be any going back on big decisions of the past (such as Nato expansion); it is far to late for that. But it could mean a search for ways to correct some of its worst effects, including the continuing view of Russia as an adversary and its effective exclusion from European security arrangements.

There are several reasons why the UK might have an interest in changing its approach to Russia post-Brexit. One is that it will be looking for friends and that might include judicious normalisation of relations with those seen as “enemies”. Trade will also be a big priority, and while the UK has been active in the Russian energy sector (which it has also spared from sanctions), it has not been nearly as active as some other Europeans in Russia’s consumer or services sectors. The UK could be looking, too, for new sources of energy as its stocks in the North Sea decline, especially if there is still insecurity in the Middle East.

Any major change, even a U-turn, on Russia will have to wait for the conclusions of the review, which are expected in a year’s time. And any overtures towards Russia that might result could still face fierce opposition from within the political Establishment. But the hawks have not gone completely uncontested in recent years, and the emergence of a new generation of Russia-watchers, with first-hand experience of post-Soviet Russia, may start to shift the balance of official opinion. If that is true, then what looks unlikely, even impossible, today, could start to look like part of a solution to the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy dilemma tomorrow.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.