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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.

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

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