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19 April 2016updated 28 Jul 2021 6:04am

Russia is here to stay – the UK should engage with it

Britain must follow America’s lead and attempt to defuse conflicts with Russia.

By Daniel Kawczynski

Russia is here to stay. As the largest country by area, the sixth largest economy, the ninth largest population, and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, there is simply no denying the power and influence of Europe’s eastern neighbour. There are many problems plaguing the country, both domestically and internationally including a crippling recession, waning human rights, and Western scorn. However, Russia has also played an integral role in trying to defuse some of the world’s hotspots. Recognising Russia’s position on the global stage is crucial to building a constructive, beneficial relationship with the country.

America and Europe have very different relationships with Russia and these differences stem from a multitude of historical issues. Geographically, European Union enlargement has swallowed up several former Soviet states and the EU now borders Russia for over 1,400 miles. America shares no land border with Russia but the two are only separated by 2.5 miles at the Diomede Islands. Politically, and perhaps more importantly to both sides, military alliances, most notably the US-heavy NATO, have flanked Russia and continue to make overtures to states in Russia’s sphere of influence. Needless to say, if the shoe was on the other foot, Europe and America would be behaving much like Russia is today. However, that isn’t to say that Russia’s antagonistic behaviour is appropriate in this era of global cooperation.

Recently, America and Europe, particularly the United Kingdom, have taken two approaches with regard to their respective relationships with Russia. The US, led primarily by Secretary of State John Kerry, has been much more receptive and willing to work with Russia on vital issues such as Syria and Iran. Meanwhile, the UK has taken a much more distant stance, vocally chastising Russia and its leadership. So what accounts for this disparity? With such closely aligned objectives, the US and the UK should be on the same page when it comes to Russia. History may provide the answer.

The relationship between the US and the USSR ebbed and flowed during the Cold War, following cooperation between America, Britain and the Soviet Union during World War II. There were periods of heightened aggression followed by periods of relative calm. Contact between American Presidents and Soviet Premiers started in earnest with the installation of a hotline between Washington and Moscow in 1963. With the threat of nuclear war ever-present, the hotline became an integral part of the relationship and allowed both sides to more effectively neutralise situations.

Britain, as a founding member of NATO, maintained similar relations with the Soviet Union as the US did. However, being geographically closer than America, Britain bore a large share of the clandestine activity against the West. The espionage and alleged assassinations that took place in Britain prevented nearly any kind of cooperation between the two and Margaret Thatcher became renowned for her anti-communism stance. Her position, coupled with a similarly anti-communism Ronald Reagan, helped make the end of the Cold War a reality.

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After the collapse of communism in Russia, the West sought stronger ties with the country and its satellites while Russia maintained its seat on the UNSC. Europe, in the midst of greater integration through the EU, was keen to continue the relationship that provided much of the continent’s energy. For some time it appeared as though the disputes of the past had been forgotten. The beginning of the 21st century had Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush in charge of the former Cold War powers and the relationship with the West deteriorated significantly over issues ranging from Iraq to the missile defence shield in Europe.

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In more recent times, the severity of the disputes has grown rapidly. Russian involvement in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine has been met with international derision. Yet, cooperation on issues such as North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs show that the two sides can agree. Nevertheless, the US and UK have taken different approaches to the problem of a re-assertive Russia. While Secretary of State Kerry publically calls Russia an “important partner,” Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond publically claims that “Russia represents a challenge and a threat to all of us.” Language such as Hammond’s does no good in cultivating a working relationship with one of the largest powers in the world.

Interestingly, at the same time as Britain and the EU have been chastising Putin for his misgivings, those same leaders have been bending over backwards to appease Turkey’s President Erdogan. Turkey and Russia have a difficult relationship at the moment with each other and with the EU. Both are crucial in the fight against ISIS and unrest in the Middle East, yet both have faced accusations from the international community for human rights violations. However, while Putin has been ostracised, Erdogan has been catered to, most notably by German Chancellor Angela Merkel who has agreed to prosecute a German satirist for comments made about Erdogan, a clear infringement on the comedian’s freedom of speech.

Perhaps the disparity between the US and UK with regards to Russia comes from the UK’s need to appear strong in the face of perceived threats while America, which has been dealing with the country for decades, has realised that Russia poses almost no military risk to the West. Very few people would suggest that Russia will attack Britain, or indeed any EU or NATO country. Conversely, perhaps Britain’s location close to Russia has forced it to present the island as a force to be reckoned with. Although America and Russia are closer geographically, the close areas are sparsely populated. London sits roughly 1,500 miles from Moscow whereas Washington, DC is nearly 5,000 miles away. Russian aircraft routinely probe British airspace, forcing RAF jets to scramble. Similar actions frequently occur against America and American forces abroad.

Whatever the reasons for Britain taking such a hard-line stance on Russia, it is vitally important to recognise that Russia is a global power. In the same way that countries such as China must be cooperated with despite ideological variances, so must Russia. Europe’s eastern neighbour is not going away, and any further EU or NATO enlargement will almost certainly infringe on Russia’s sphere of influence, further complicating matters. Russia’s behaviour recently is absolutely unacceptable, yet cooperation between Russia and Britain is necessary. Britain must follow America’s lead and attempt to defuse conflicts rather than poke the Russian bear that already feels caged in. 

Daniel Kawczynski is Conservative MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham and a member of the Foreign Affairs select committee.