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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder