Russia might seem weakened, but we still need the security offered by Nato

After the Salisbury poisoning, Britain could rely on the unanimous support of France, Germany and the US in condemning the attack

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At the start of the year, Boris Johnson invited a group of journalists for an impromptu drinks party at his private rooms in the Foreign Office. As reported by Politico, there was a short policy pamphlet on the top of the Foreign Secretary’s desk, Beyond Nato: A Security Architecture for Eastern Europe, written by Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in Washington. Might a new approach to Russia be on the cards for 2018?

Advocating a dramatic shift in Western policy, O’Hanlon argues that any talk of Nato enlargement should cease, and countries in the “broken-up arc” on Nato’s borders – from Finland and Sweden in the north to Serbia and Cyprus in the south – should instead declare “permanent neutrality”. His book was widely discussed on its publication last summer, partly because the arrival of a new president in the White House had encouraged talk of a “reset” in relations with Moscow.

Some even began to contemplate the potential for a Détente 2.0, with the US finally freeing itself from some of the burdens of European security. After all, the flea-bitten Russian bear – with a contracting economy and declining population – increasingly looks like the odd one out in a pulsing Eurasian land mass characterised by breakneck growth and a demographic explosion.

Recognising the change of mood, last March Johnson became the first British Foreign Secretary to visit Moscow for more than five years. In western Europe too there seemed to be a desire for a new course. Polling figures consistently show that a large majority of Germans would like their government to pursue friendlier relations with Moscow, while three out of the four main candidates in France’s presidential election (although, crucially, not Emmanuel Macron) advocated much the same.

Yet no sooner had the door opened for the latest reset between Russia and the West than it had closed again, trapping fingers along the way. Some of this is due to unforeseen circumstances, such as the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the US presidential election. In other cases, the ugly logic of letting Russia do the dirty work in Syria has been exposed – with civilian populations suffering because of Moscow’s support for the Assad regime.

And then, just a week before Russia’s presidential elections, Vladimir Putin’s regime deployed a weapons-grade nerve agent on the streets of Salisbury, poisoning three people and risking the lives of many more. With an unusual degree of unanimity, France, Germany, the US and the UK signed a joint statement condemning the act. In New York, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, called the Salisbury attack a “defining moment”.

In deciding his next move, Putin has the advantage of starting out on his fourth six-year term as president. In China, Xi Jinping has just humbly accepted his coronation by abolishing term limits on his own presidency. It is nothing new for those in the West to be at a comparative disadvantage when playing a diplomatic game over the longue durée. But the bitter domestic political fallout from the Skripal affair in Salisbury underscores the challenges of trying to craft a coherent long-term strategy in an era of revived great power politics.

In the West, there is little desire to see further escalation with Moscow. Yet every time Russia forces its way back into the headlines – from the Litvinenko murder in London in 2006 to Skripal, from the Donbas to Crimea – we end up regurgitating the same tired arguments. A false dichotomy is presented: between admitting our own mistakes in dealing with Russia in the past; or instead reverting to some sort of revivified Cold War in which efforts at dialogue are abandoned.

The argument that Russia is justified in seeing itself as the aggrieved party has a long historical lineage and deserves some unpacking. With some justification, one can point to the West’s ostracisation of revolutionary Russia in its infancy, the failure to appreciate the epic sacrifices made by the Soviet Union in saving Europe from Nazism, and the desire of the West to drive home its advantage during the moment of greatest Russian weakness at the end of the Cold War. Much is also made of Nato enlargement in the 1990s in a way that Russia saw as encroachment. George Washington University’s National Security Archive has just released a tranche of documents from the early 1990s that demonstrate how this process strained US-Russian relations under Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, leaving legacy issues with which we are dealing today.

It is one thing to acknowledge missteps in the past. But it is quite another – as has been seen in the Skripal case – to equivocate and dissemble when confronted with state-sponsored attempted murder with a nerve agent on British soil. Those who seek a new approach to dealing with Russia are destined to fail if their argument consists of special pleading for Putin.

Seventy years ago, on 17 March 1948, it was a Labour government that led the way in the signing of the Treaty of Brussels, which provided for “collective self-defence” in western Europe (the foundation stone for the creation of Nato). As Clement Attlee’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin understood the danger of betting national security on the vagaries of personalities or the great power summits preferred by Winston Churchill. One of the most enduring achievements of the Labour government was embedding “collective security” as the cornerstone of European security after 1945. We forget that story at our peril. 

John Bew is the author of “Citizen Clem: a Biography of Attlee” and a New Statesman contributing writer

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special