Russia-United Kingdom Relations

To the west and to the east of the EU’s borders there will be, after 2019, two powerful European states outside the European Union. Both the UK and Russia are permanent members of the UN Security Council, both have nuclear weapons, both are major global economies. They both will have vital interest in the stability and success of Europe as a whole.

Editor's note: This article was written before British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson cancelled his trip to Moscow.

In 1940 Winston Churchill remarked that “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Western countries have always found it difficult to understand Russia’s very special nature. But Churchill’s comments were interesting for two reasons.

Firstly, even in 1940 the British Prime Minister called the country Russia and not the Soviet Union. He realized that behind the title USSR there remained the Russian Empire that had expanded and consolidated since Peter the Great.

Secondly, less often quoted, Churchill had added “I cannot forecast the action of Russia but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russia’s national interest”.

Sometimes people say something similar about the United Kingdom. Viewed from the European Union we are, especially at the present time, a riddle. We, too, are a country who seems to be preoccupied with our national interest at the expense of international vision.

But national interest has, throughout history, as often brought Britain and Russia together as it has forced us apart.

We fought together to defeat Napoleon’s attempts to dominate Europe. We were allies in the First World War. Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill were the Big Three that defeated Hitler in 1945, despite our ideological differences.

But we were also competitors in the 19th as well as the 20th centuries. For the British Empire, India was the jewel in its crown. As Russia extended its territory into Central Asia towards Afghanistan, Britain saw this as a potential threat to its control of India.

Britain’s Royal Navy also saw Russian aspirations to push the Ottomans out of Constantinople and control the access to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea as a threat to its naval dominance which was the most important expression of British imperial power.

These fears and aspirations are now matters of history but British-Soviet relations were very cool throughout the Cold War.

Unlike West Germany Britain never saw the Soviet Union as a major market for its exports. It had no need for energy supplies from Russia. As an island off the western coast of the European landmass it would have been the last to experience the consequences of any land war in central Europe.

Britain, throughout that time, was closer to the United States in its geopolitical mindset and unlike France and West Germany gave less priority to its political relationship with Moscow.

The major exception was the relationship that developed between Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. I was present when Thatcher met Gorbachev .

I recall that although the Iron Lady and the Soviet member of the Politburo agreed on little, they liked and were impressed by each other. In time they grew to trust each other. Thatcher informed Reagan that Gorbachev was a man “with whom we can do business”. The rest, as they say, is history.

The success of the Thatcher-Gorbachev meetings and their historic consequences show that there is no fundamental reason why the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation should not, despite their differences, have a close and positive relationship.

The fact that that has not been true over the last ten years has been because of one specific event as well as the growing gulf between Russia and the West on Crimea, eastern Ukraine and other matters.

The specific event was the murder of Alexander Litvinenko on the streets of London in 2006. Litvinenko was a British citizen at the time of his death.

No one in Britain doubts that Litvinenko’s murder was ordered in Moscow. The refusal of the Russian authorities to allow a proper investigation combined with the appointment of his alleged killer to the State Duma has poisoned efforts to improve bilateral relations.

There is now, in my view, a serious interest on the part of the British Government to see whether 2017 can see the beginning of better and more positive co-operation between the two countries.  The visit of the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to Moscow that will soon take place will be an important diplomatic development.

Johnson will not be going to Moscow with any great expectations. In a recent interview he said “I wouldn’t say I‘m bursting with optimism. Virtually every foreign secretary, every prime minister, every president begins hoping there can be a reset with Russia. It has proved disappointing every time. I have no real grounds for thinking this will be any different”.

I was interested that in the same interview Johnson said “Russia needs to give a sign that it can be trusted”.  Trust, as I indicated earlier in this article, was what developed between Thatcher and Gorbachev. Without trust there would have been no peaceful end to the Cold War. Without some rebirth of trust Russia and the West will not resolve their current differences.

Johnson mentioned Syria and North Korea as two issues which should bring Britain and Russia closer together in the interests of stability in the Middle East and the need to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

There also needs to be clear and unambiguous evidence that Russia will respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine and allow for the peaceful reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk into that country. Crimea will be more difficult but as with the Baltic States after 1940 the legitimacy of its forced annexation by Russia will never be recognised.

But there are other issues on which Britain and Russia should be natural allies. Both have experienced Islamic jihadi terrorism and need to find new ways to co-operate. There has been, in the past, joint action in Afghanistan. There are a range of cultural, economic and political issues which would benefit from dialogue and joint projects.

Brexit , the UK’s departure from the European Union, adds a whole new dimension. To the west and to the east of the EU’s borders there will be, after 2019, two powerful European states outside the European Union. Both the UK and Russia are permanent members of the UN Security Council, both have nuclear weapons, both are major global economies. They both will have vital interest in the stability and success of Europe as a whole.

Of course, the UK will retain a much closer association with EU countries and, in particular, with France and Germany. This will not only be through NATO but there will also be new opportunities and, perhaps, structures that will ensure the closest co-operation between Western European countries on areas of common foreign policy.

Britain showed in 1914 and 1939 that when continental Europe’s stability and liberty are threatened the United Kingdom’s military, economic and political power will be available to those seeking to preserve or restore freedom.

We have also shown, over the centuries, that we are a pragmatic country willing to work with other countries wherever there are shared interests. The United Kingdom and the Russian Federation have important shared interests. 

If trust between their leaders and with the leaders of Europe and North America, can be restored much will be achieved to the benefit of our peoples and countries as a whole.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.