In August 2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, made a surprise visit to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, following Russia’s occupation of large swathes of the country. In response to Vladimir Putin’s aggression, Cameron called for visa restrictions on Russian citizens and argued for Russia’s suspension from the G8. “If we just stand by after what Russia has done in Georgia, then where next will Russia intervene?” he presciently asked.
Putin’s aggression continued long after 2008: he annexed Crimea in 2014, armed separatist rebels in the Donbas, and supported the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Cameron was in power during these acts of aggression. Did he heed his own advice?
On 9 March, the former prime minister appeared on the LBC show of New Statesman’s political editor Andrew Marr. Cameron robustly defended his dealings with Putin, insisting there was “no naivety” in his approach. “I don’t think there was any naivety about Putin,” he said. “We knew he was deeply antipathetic to our interests and values. He could never be a partner.” But Cameron clearly did see Putin as a partner during the Syrian civil war, at least initially. In a press conference in 2013, he said that he and Putin shared the “fundamental aims… to let the Syrian people choose who governs them, and prevent the growth of violent extremism”. Despite Cameron’s assurances of mutual interest, Putin turned out to be more interested in bombing Aleppo than promoting democracy.
In terms of Ukraine, Cameron told Marr he led the response to the 2014 invasion of Crimea by suspending Putin from the G8 and providing training to the Ukrainian military. Cameron did push for harsher sanctions after 2014, and he also proposed a register of overseas property owners to combat money laundering in 2016 (which is finally being introduced six years later in the Economic Crime Bill that’s currently going through parliament). He added that he thought Putin was a “phenomenal liar”.
Nonetheless, there was a fundamental problem with the Cameron government’s approach to Putin. He assumed that he could separate Putin’s acts of aggression in eastern Europe from the areas where he thought the UK and Russia shared interests. That normalised Putin on the world stage. At the same time, London was left free to become the world centre for corrupt Russian money. Cameron’s government cut defence spending, weakening the UK’s position.
The parallels between this approach and Cameron and George Osborne’s announcement of a “golden era” of Sino-British relations are clear. In both cases, the former prime minister thought he could bring authoritarian leaders in from the cold. But just as the Tory party is now retreating from its warm embrace of the Chinese Communist Party, so it is reckoning with its naive approach to Vladimir Putin’s rise.
[See also: What is Vladimir Putin’s way out in Ukraine?]