British-Russian relations have suffered greatly in recent years, with a series of incidents souring relations: the Alexander Litvinenko scandal, the British Council restrictions, diplomatic exits and various extradition rows. Foreign Secretary David Milliband will visit Russia next week, the first visit by a British Foreign Secretary since relations hit their rocky low.
In an optimistic piece in the Times, the former British ambassador to Moscow, Tony Brenton, sees ‘common ground’ between Russia and Great Britain, and offers five suggestions for how the two sides can improve relations – without Britain shying away from tackling Russia on human rights.
First, we should remain true to our own liberal principles. Russia is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. This gives us clear standing to criticise the more flagrant breaches — lawyers arrested, NGOs pressurised, journalists murdered. We should not, with our more pusillanimous European partners, be ready to turn a blind eye to bad behaviour. Russia does not respect weakness. And standing up for what we believe in strengthens those brave Russians who are working to improve their country.
Second, we should work with Russia where we can. Talk of a “new ColdWar” is a grotesque exaggeration. Russia is not the revanchisttroublemaker depicted in much of the Western press. Its foreign policyis based on a cautious assessment of its national interest. There iscommon ground that we should work to exploit. Russia is as keen as weare to stop Iran going nuclear and Afghanistan falling back into thehands of the Taleban. We have a joint contribution to make to cuttingthe world’s excessive stock of nuclear weapons. And there are vastgains to be made by expanding our mutual trade and investment.
Third, we should make it clear when Russia’s external behaviour becomesunacceptable. The murder of Litvinenko, the attacks on the BritishCouncil, the unilateral Russian recognition of Abkhazia and SouthOssetia, the cyber attack on Estonia all disrupted the internationalorder. To let such behaviour pass is simply to invite more of the same.If we are clear where the limits are, we strengthen the hand of thoseinside Russia who argue that it should observe international norms morecarefully.
Fourth, we should recognise that Russia is going to evolve onlygradually and according to its own rhythms. It is unrealistic tobelieve that our behaviour can alone set Russia on a more co-operativeand liberal path. We, with our partners, can be influential at themargins, but only there. We should accept that, for a while at least,Russia is going to remain a very challenging player on theinternational scene, and adjust our tactics accordingly.
But, finally, we should remain optimistic. Russia is a country that, interms of both history and culture, knows itself to be profoundlyEuropean. As it looks around its borders, the least threatening one isthat to the west. Its trade and investment links are heavily westernorientated. The values to which it aspires are Western values. As itspeople grow more prosperous and more knowledgeable about the freedomsenjoyed by their Western neighbours, so they will grow less tolerant ofthe constraints under which they are forced to live.