The UK and Russia: how to end the paralysis

Rather than approaching our relationship with Russia from a humanitarian or social perspective, we should move past this web of irritants and seek a deeper arrangement.

In recent months, British-Russian relations have become increasingly fraught. The cultural divide, at least between their governments, grows ever clearer. For Britain, fresh from celebrating the passage of gay marriage, but now reeling at Russia’s recent laws against "promoting" homosexuality, it’s clear that an alignment of cultural values is not a realistic goal.

But in a new book out this week, post-Soviet scholar Robert Legvold argues that the UK (and Europe) has to aim for a better relationship with the country. This connection should not be based on case-by-case provisions for mutual interests, but on a deeper and more beneficial arrangement.

Rather than approaching a relationship with Russia from a humanitarian or social perspective, we should move past this "web of irritants, only loosely related to vital national interests, which has ensnared ties between two countries," Legvold writes. Vital national interests certainly lie beneath the surface of the fractious relationship between Russia and Europe and, in the UK’s case, trade has taken a turn for the worse. In 2011, Russia accounted for just 1% more than in 2001, while the UK slid out of the top 10 of the country's trading partners, and now represents less than 3% of Russian trade.

Legvold uses the analogy of Russian dolls to suggest that the bilateral UK-Russia connection sits inside that between Russia and the EU, Russia and NATO, and the US and Russia. The problem, he argues, is the missing doll: the Euro-Atlantic security community that American, European and Russian leaders have regularly promised us since the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe. The formation of this group could effectively meet the real security threats that they all face; military cooperation, rather than competition, would go a long way to causing much of what mars the other three dolls to disappear.

The UK and Russia’s relationship has been made particularly complex by events such as the Iraq war and the death of Alexander Litvinenko, and the "special relationship" with the US has left Britain an "unhappy outlier" among European states. As Legvold suggests, while the UK’s role in Russia diminishes, energy continues to constitute the heart of the EU-Russia relationship, and when it comes to centrepieces, Germany and the EU commission "control the action". Ultimately, though, the NATO-US dimension of the UK-Russia relationship "creates its deep underpinning".

From Russia’s nuclear choices to its energy and climate change policy, (it is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas) the stakes are high. But the two largest issues, argues Legvold, are transforming the "broader Euro-Atlantic region, including Russia, into a real, working security community, from cyber-warfare to health pandemics". 

It is down to Britain, he concludes, to "help break the lethargy and paralysis that has left the Euro-Atlantic world pinned under the detritus of the cold war" and "dismantle the barriers that prevent progress on the hard, practical issues on the agenda." Despite David Miliband’s assurance during his 2009 Moscow visit that he was there "to talk, not growl", the UK’s relationship with Russia, both in its own right and as part of the EU, is more Russian bear than Russian doll. Whether or not it can evolve in the way proposed by Legvold remains to be seen.

Natalie Cox is Communications Intern at IPPR. Influencing Tomorrow, by Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP & Dr Ian Kearns, is published on 7 November 2013 and is available from Guardian Bookshop

Vladimir Putin welcomes David Cameron during the G20 summit on September 5, 2013 in Saint Petersburg. Photograph: Getty Images.

Natalie Cox is Communications Intern at IPPR

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.