Britain on Russia: Adrift in Europe

As Sergei Lavrov visits London, Britain needs to rethink its approach to Russia if it is to benefit from strong economic ties with Moscow. This need not mean that it has to compromise on its tough stance on human rights issues, provided it tries to push for a more united EU voice on Russia.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is in London today (14th February) for rare high-level talks between the Kremlin and Britain.  This should come as no surprise. Post-crisis Russia is on a charm offensive. The dynamics of EU-Russia relations as a whole have been turned upside down from the phoney Cold War that followed the Georgian conflict.

For David Cameron and William Hague, this visit is a key stepping stone towards the Prime Minister’s upcoming visit to Moscow –and the choice he will have to make about whether to engage Putin or follow the Labour government’s frosty policy.

When Tony Blair was the young star of the West he was amongst the first EU leaders to visit St Petersburg, to embrace a grey and seemingly nondescript new President called Vladimir Putin. Just over five years later Blair’s government had all but frozen relations with Russia, with the toughest stance on Russia in the G-7. Russian spying in London reached Cold War levels. Russian MIGs had entered UK airspace, the British Council in two cities had been closed, and the British Ambassador was harassed. Spies and diplomats were chucked out in regular mutual spats, while the British citizen and former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive material in London.

Within the EU, Britain adopted a tone of frosty pragmatism towards the Kremlin. London found itself a heavyweight in a coalition of countries made jittery by Moscow’s assertiveness, with human rights issues high on the agenda. Normally on the sidelines of the EU, the UK worked closely with Poland, the Baltic and Scandinavian states to keep the Union cold on Russia.

Yet now Britain finds herself with a new government, changed political coalitions on the continent and a sluggish economy that would benefit from a successful trading policy. The new government wants to get Britain growing again by trading with the BRICs, with Russian stocks seen as an attractive option by the city. In 2007 the UK was the largest foreign investor in Russia, but now she is lagging behind other EU member states who have warmer ties with Moscow. The international coalition that favoured the soft containment of Russia – at its largest after the Georgian War – is no more, now that Poland has opted to reset its relations with Moscow.

A new forum for dealing with Russia has emerged in Europe –the Weimar Triangle. This forum sees France, Germany and Poland meet with Russia in a non-EU capacity. Britain is not involved and now finds herself isolated in the making of eastern policy. Meanwhile, in June 2010 Germany saw fit to offer Moscow a Permanent Security Committee between the EU and Russia, without informing the EU institutions beforehand. Poland claims they got a call before the offer was made. London was out of the loop. In October 2010 France, Germany and Russia talked to each other directly at the Deauville Summit (to the annoyance of many EU states in the east that felt unrepresented).

With her old EU foreign policy alliance dissolving, the UK now stands at a cross-road in terms of her relationship with Russia, and with EU foreign policy making more broadly. Either the UK government can choose to follow Sarkozy and Berlusconi towards ‘strategic partnership’ with Russia, leaving human rights and media freedom off the bilateral agenda while standing against further NATO expansion. The BP-Rosneft joint deal to explore for Arctic oil offers a taste of what is on offer.

The government is keen to boost trade, and Vince Cable (the Business Secretary) has just visited the Kremlin, exploring possibilities for partnership. But what price should we pay for warmer ties?

Britaindoes not want to be left behind in potential job-creating, growth-inducing trade deals but nor does she want to compromise her principles. Mr Cameron and Mr Hague should make it clear to Sergei Lavrov that Britain supports a structured common stance by the EU, where UK commercial interests are force-multiplied by 27 member states’ weight. European countries benefit from closer cooperation, as on the process of unbundling energy markets through the `Third energy package´ which comes into force in March. This makes hydrocarbons cheaper and lessens the Kremlin´s leverage over the EU´s supplies by making it far harder for a company to be a supplier and a transit provider at the same time, which is how Gazprom operates.

The non-economic fundamentals that made UK-Russia relations bad in the first place are still in place. Russian spying is still at unprecedented levels in the UK, with supposed agents still being uncovered and expelled. In Russia itself, opposition activists are still denied freedom of assembly and elections are falsified. Instead of seeking to re-create a version of the Franco-Russian or Italian-Russian special relationships, the UK would benefit from pushing for a more united EU approach – voiced through the new nascent common European foreign policy machinery.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.