Should Britain Reset Relations With Russia?

162617816.jpgA somewhat heterdox argument today from Mary Dejevsky in the Independent, who has taken Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Westminster, as well as the events in Egypt as the chance to reflect upon the past twenty years of Russia-Britain relations.  In the article quoted below, she argues the case that pragmatism should predominate when it comes to Britain’s approach to Russia, running counter to the current spate of comments urging Britain to retain a healthy distance in its dealings with Moscow, as long as the Kremlin continues to manifest disdain for freedom of press (an issue raised just last week with Luke Harding’s expulsion), practice legal nihilism and quash opposition activities:

It is a measure of how testy relations between our two countries have been that Mr Cameron’s Moscow trip will be the first by a British prime minister for five years. It is par for the course, too, that even the foreign minister’s visit was almost derailed by a row about a British reporter’s visa. As so often, ideology was brought into a dispute where it did not belong, while everyone jumped to the worst possible conclusion: it’s back to the bad old Soviet days.

Which points up a paradox: why was Mrs Thatcher then able to do business with Mikhail Gorbachev, while more recent British governments have found it hard to do business with Russia in anything but oil and gas? In large part, I suspect, it was the overblown expectations of post-Soviet Russia harboured by the foreign-policy romantics. When they ask wistfully why Russia could not be more like Poland or the Baltic States, their delusions are already exposed.

This is not to argue that Russians do not comprehend freedom anddemocracy, or are congenitally different – which the romantics alsoimply when they think their talk of “values” has fallen on deaf ears. Itis to argue that everyone has to determine their future for themselvesand that Russians actually enjoy more democracy and freedom than isoften, condescendingly, understood. Try the blogosphere if you don’tbelieve it.

There are other specifics that might set Britain apart. A variegatedRussian opposition-in-exile that demonises Vladimir Putin, and soinfluences British opinion. Ditto vocal Chechen émigrés who harnessedstar-studded support. An intelligence establishment schooled in Cold Warespionage whose existence is justified by continuing the fight. Andpoliticians who rush to negative judgement – over responsibility for theGeorgia war, say – rather than countenancing the more complex truth.

If anyone should understand the difference between post-imperialambition and actual reach, it should be Britain. As Britain should alsounderstand Russia’s prickly sense of its own dignity and interests. Youmight appear prickly if a hostile alliance moved up to your borders andplanned anti-missile installations that treated you as an enemy, just asyou might call foul when a country paying compensation to victims of”rendition” reminds you of the “values” you signed up to in joining theCouncil of Europe.

I don’t recall hearing much about “values” in our relations with Egypt.Or with China, or France or the United States. It is a word reserved forthose we feel we might convert. Drop the patronising romanticism, andlet’s see how relations might improve when we stop wanting Russia to besomething it is not.