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Britain-Russia: beyond politics

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David Cameron’s Moscow “reset” resolved few of the fundamental issues afflicting UK-Russian relations. Yet by moving the relationship on beyond politics, the visit proved to be a rather useful one, writes Dmitri Trenin.

Dmitri Trenin
13 September 2011

United Kingdom as a bridge

It used to be the other way around. During much of the Cold War, the United Kingdom often worked as a bridge between Moscow and Washington. At the time when Soviet-American relations would dip even beneath the level that was deemed barely tolerable, a British Prime Minister – Harold Macmillan or Margaret Thatcher – would host a visit from the Kremlin and seek to defuse dangerous tensions. They would also show up in Moscow themselves – well ahead of the period which came to be known as détente.

David Cameron’s trip to Russia comes six years after the previous visit, by Tony Blair. It also comes a couple of years after the famous “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations; almost a year after what was billed as a similar reset between NATO and Russia; and well after Moscow and Warsaw have embarked on a path to historical reconciliation. In his own way, Cameron has attempted his own version of reconciliation with Russia.

Exceptional frostiness

The reason for the recent exceptional frostiness in official Anglo-Russian relations is, of course, the killing of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 and Moscow’s refusal to extradite the person whom the British authorities suspect of killing him, Andrei Lugovoy. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the Litvinenko case is part of a larger issue – Britain’s granting of a political asylum to the billionaire Boris Berezovsky, once the Kremlin kingmaker and then a bitter enemy of the one whom he once helped on to power, but then failed to control: Vladimir Putin.

"With political relations languishing, UK companies have accumulated some $40 billion in investments in Russia. Russian tycoons and senior officials – it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between them – have continued to buy property in Britain."

Bygones will not be forgotten, but they will not be allowed to stand in the way of productive relations. With political relations languishing, UK companies have accumulated some $40 billion in investments in Russia. Russian tycoons and senior officials – it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between them – have continued to buy property in Britain. London’s Russian population has soared to 350,000, and the high and mighty in Moscow have developed a habit of sending their offspring to British boarding schools and universities.

Of course, there have been spectacular failures. BP’s experience in Russia has been notoriously marked by scandals with its Russian partners. Russia’s inhospitable business climate was only partly to blame, however: oil majors usually go out to countries with similarly inauspicious socio-political environments, as long as there is money to be made. BP made two cardinal mistakes: first by underestimating its local partners, and then by trying to imitate them in cutting corners. Hopefully it will have learned from this.

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 After a meeting with the British PM, President Dmitry Medvedev claimed frosty relations were thawing.

Another failure, this time on the political front, has been Britain’s inability to affect the domestic conditions in Russia. UK official representatives in Moscow spoke out loudly and clearly in support of democracy and human rights, and reached out to Russia’s liberal opposition figures. The result was harassment, administrative pressure against UK institutions such as the British Council, and a hollowing out of the diplomatic relationship. Lessons must have been drawn from that too. On the first day of his visit, Mr. Cameron had a meeting with Prime Minister Putin, posing for a photo-op which was unthinkable even a couple of years ago. 

UK as a modernization partner?

So, where do we go from here? Russia will be eager to engage the UK as a major “modernization partner” in Europe, looking for investment and technologies. This partnership, however, will be constrained not so much by political issues between Moscow and London, as by the extortion-type corruption, weak property rights and near-lack of legal protection in Russia. Britain, for its part, will continue to look for business opportunities in Russia. For those who are knowledgeable and resourceful, success there is not out of reach. Despite the stringent visa regime, more and more people will travel between the two countries, making the Moscow-London air bridge one of Russia’s busiest.

Many things, of course, will remain as they are. On a number of political issues, and Libya and Syria are the most recent examples here, the two countries will agree to disagree – maybe more politely, from now on. Britain’s media will continue to condemn Russia’s authoritarianism, even more vigorously perhaps, in the run-up to the Duma and Presidential elections in the coming months. However, David Cameron’s call on Mr. Putin suggests that Downing Street are prepared to see Putin either formally back in the Kremlin, or as Russia’s paramount leader beyond 2012.

In many ways, the British Prime Minister’s visit to Russia was more symbolic than ground-breaking. It has not solved the problems in the relationship, but moved them instead to one side, thus diminishing their role as obstacles. It has not led to a British “sell-out” on principles, but clearly recognized what is possible beyond one’s borders, and what is not. It has brought Mr. Putin back from the cold, as far as HMG, if not the bulk of the British public, is concerned, and thus strengthened the sense of realism in UK foreign policy. In a word, it was a useful visit.

"In many ways, the British Prime Minister’s visit to Russia was more symbolic than ground-breaking. It has not solved the problems in the relationship, but moved them instead to one side, thus diminishing their role as obstacles.ę

The Kremlin feels satisfied and vindicated. It was London that broke high-level contacts in the first place, and it is London that has now restored them. The Litvinenko case will remain open, but Lugovoy will not travel to London, and Berezovsky has been very quiet of late. British companies are welcome in Russia, as long as they play by the rules, and London, to the well-heeled Russians, will be either a second home, or a safe haven, or both. The only concern is the Magnitsky list which, should it be officially adopted, could lead to real pain and a new spat. At this point, however, it is only a remote possibility.

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All this is a far cry from the halcyon days of the Great Game and of the Cold War with their zones-of-influence, democracy vs communism, war-and-peace agendas. Like Britain a half century ago, Russia has lost its empire and is unsure about its new role. Unlike Britain, Russia will probably stay on its own for a very long time. Meanwhile, in UK-Russia relations, business and human ties have crowded out the regional rivalries and military balances of yore. The new normalcy requires that politics stays out of the relationship. Mr. Cameron’s visit to Moscow has made that official.

Dmitri Trenin is Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. His new book, “Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story”, has just been published by the Carnegie Endowment.

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