Russo-British relations: are we trying to play a game with no rules?


Much has been written about the Cameron visit to Moscow and why it apparently failed to do much to improve the chill in relations between Russia and Britain. We are very different, but that does not mean there is no way forward. Some kind of relationship can be developed, but the rules of the game must be re-drawn, explains Poel Karp

Poel Karp
3 October 2011

We know little about Cameron’s visit to Moscow other than some of the subjects raised, and they were not key issues in the relations between the two countries. We know nothing of the meeting with Putin. Everyone apparently held their own, but the relationship has not improved. A pity.

This doesn’t, however, mean the visit was in vain. We now know that it’s not a question of individual concessions and private guarantees, which are anyway unreliable. The Cold War rules of reciprocity no longer function. Although the economy has apparently been privatised, the state has been left to run it and Russia has not adopted any of the standards of the liberal world. Even the tempting profit levels do not make foreign investors comfortable with the rules of the local pseudo-private outfits. Indeed, they are fearful of them. 

In this the Brits are the most foreign of foreigners. British courts have instilled in them a respect for the rules, any departure from which must inevitably entail conflict and misunderstanding. The British and the Russians are equally pragmatic, but for Brits this is a clear-cut end in itself, whereas for the Russian it’s a means to ends that are not always practical. This difference is quite conducive to cooperation, because it stops people looking over their shoulders at the difference in goals.

"The Cold War rules of reciprocity no longer function. Although the economy has apparently been privatised, the state has been left to run it and Russia has not adopted any of the standards of the liberal world."

The Germans are much closer to the Russians and have had an enormous influence on them – to say nothing of the fact that from the middle of the 18th century Russian tsars were German – but Russia has constantly been at war with them. England has more often than not been an ally, except for the Crimean War, when she supported the Turks.

Litvinenko and Magnitsky

After the Cold War ended, the rules for relationships became blurred and both sides were forever coming up against individual cases. The most publicised is the case of Litvinenko, the FSB officer who fled to London. On 1 November 2006 he met some friends, then he started feeling unwell. He was put into hospital and died on 23 November of, as it turned out, polonium poisoning. The murder was discussed in detail in the British press. The investigation accused Andrei Lugovoi and demanded his extradition, but Russia refused, citing Article 17 of the Constitution, which does not allow the extradition of its citizens.

It could have been pointed out that Article 17 is not quite as clear-cut as was asserted.  According to Article 15 “if an international treaty of the Russian Federation has established rules, other than those stipulated by the law, the rules of the international treaty shall apply.” The Strasbourg Court could have given advice on how to proceed, but it has so far remained silent.


Carriages in the Moscow metro have long benches; the London underground has individual seats. A significant difference: the English are more concerned about individuals, for Russians the group takes priority.

However, the reason for not yielding up Lugovoi, even if he is the murderer, is not so much the Constitution, as the Law on the FSB, which the State Duma amended on 27 July 2006, 4 months before Litvinenko died. Those amendments allow the FSB Special Task Force, with the permission of the RF President, to use all means at its disposal to prevent actions on the part of terrorists or any other criminals outside the RF. On 27 July 2006 the right of the President of Russia to order the extrajudicial murder of anyone he thinks fit outside Russia upon mere suspicion was confirmed. Of course the USSR did this previously – as in the case of Trotsky – and so have other countries, but it was usually unlawful. Today the law entitles the President of Russia to issue an order of this kind. He naturally is aware of his responsibility to those receiving the order. This is why Russia rescued the accused murderers of the Ichkerian president Yandarbiyev and why Lugovoi has been shielded. The Chekists want to be protected by the law when they are at work.

Another indication of the bad relationship is the Browder case, better known as the case of Magnitsky, his lawyer who died in custody. Browder is the grandson of a former leader of the American Communist Party. At first he worked with the Russian authorities successfully, even criticising Khodorkovsky, whose cooperation with them had disintegrated. But he was forced to rescue his own property from the Russian state which was trying to take it away from him. Later on he listed the claims made by the authorities, which led him to bring out even his Russian employees to safety. 

What is important is that is wasn’t just some official who took a swipe at a foreign investor, but that arbitrary behaviour, a game with no rules, is at the heart of the system of state management of the allegedly privatised economy. Each case is carefully considered on its merits – who, how they will be treated – at a higher level of the power vertical, though not necessarily by the President. Magnitsky uncovered the theft of state property by officials. His fate came as a surprise only to those who don’t understand that in Russia state property is collectively owned by the ruling class – as it was in Soviet times – and that individual members of the collective have even more direct access to the areas allocated to them than they did in the past. Foreign investors find it difficult to accept this relationship, which is what gives rise to misunderstandings.

The differences

Regrettably, in his public appearance at Moscow State University, Cameron did not lay more emphasis on the fact that Britain (in the person of Mrs Thatcher) was the first to mention the possibility of doing business with the new Russia and that it was Russia, not Britain, which initiated the deterioration in relations. But Putin could have answered – and maybe he did – that Russia was not attacking Britain, just some of her citizens. And although it’s not quite that simple – the closing of the British Council is not a personal action – there would have been a grain of truth in his answer. But this revealed the difference between the two countries, which, because it remains unrecognised, is a barrier to mutual understanding.

"It is hardly by chance that in the London Underground the seats are individual, whereas in the Moscow Metro people sit cheek by jowl. English people see themselves as individuals, Russians as part of a group."

Both countries, for example, are famous for their dramatic art and it’s hard to say which is the stronger. In England the general level of acting is probably rather higher, but Russian directorial skills are far superior, as is its choreography. The finished Russian production is usually more of an integrated whole, whereas in an English production the individual skills of the actors predominate. This applies not only to the world of the theatre. It is hardly by chance that in the London Underground the seats are individual, whereas in the Moscow Metro people sit cheek by jowl. English people see themselves as individuals, Russians as part of a group.


Meeting Russia’s Prime Minister, David Cameron was not to know that Putin’s secret plan to return to the Kremlin would soon be made public. Perhaps the encounter with Russia’s controversial strongman carried more political weight than was apparent at the time.  

In discussing conflicts with Russia, British governments appear not to understand that these conflicts hinge on the Russian concept of the individual and the general, which differs radically from the British. Europeans find it very hard to grasp this. However, the British authorities have been able to observe the cases of Litvinenko and Magnitsky, which, though startlingly different, had the same tragic outcome. Both came up against civil servants whose actions contravened the law. But they acted differently. Litvinenko fled in secret and revealed what he had discovered from abroad. Magnitsky, who had the opportunity of leaving legally, refused to do so and denounced the criminal officials on the spot. This distinction had no effect on their fates: both were treated the same. The Russian government, which despises the country and its people, seeing in them only a means to achieve domination and enrichment, did not distinguish between them. This is the wall of mutual misunderstanding between the two countries.

The way forward

Naturally Britain feels it has to demand the extradition of Lugovoi. It would be logical if, like the USA, Britain were to deny entry to those responsible for the death of Magnitsky. But the Russian leadership’s world view, which is still Soviet, cannot be changed by punishing officials, even if they deserve to be punished, and it’s not for the West to try and change Russia’s internal structures. They will only change if Russia can surmount the crisis in which it finds itself as a result of the 70 years of headstrong rule, which destroyed the civil economy for the sake of military strength. The West has only to recognise the fundamental differences between the Russian economy and Russian behaviour and its own. And to explain that good relations are possible if, recognising our differences, distinct areas can be identified where Russia will abide by mutually acceptable standards. This is how it was done even in the Cold War. But Yeltsin and Putin inculcated into Western minds the illusion that there are no longer any differences between Russia and the West. And Britain believed it.

The Litvinenko case cannot be cleared up by treating it as a separate matter. In Russia every case reveals the ideology, in many ways distorted and not fully expressed, based on the unshakeable assumption that Russia is better than anyone else and those in power there are better than all other Russian citizens. This is why she attempts to apply her rules and procedures in the rest of the world. However topical the question of how Western states should react to the outrages in Russia, more relevant and more essential still is the question of Russia’s attempts to foist its practices on others.

The West says nothing about the Russian president’s arrogation to himself of the right to murder people in other countries at will, though it is an act of aggression, and an act of war – and not the Cold War either. No one says out loud that while the law of 27 July 2006 is in force, state-to-state relations cannot be regarded as peaceful. Until Britain, France, Germany and the USA come up with a serious response to this unprecedented issue, Russia will see no need to renounce it. In exactly the same way the British government is not able to defend a lone British investor who has fallen foul of Russian rules and courts, which are far removed from justice and the law. But it has a duty to explain to those wishing to invest in Russia that they are doing this at their own risk, or to secure for them the special guarantees to which the Russian government has signed up in treaties with Britain.

"The harsh regime, which grew out of the Soviet system, can be changed, but only during a crisis and only by Russians themselves. But this is no explanation for the West’s tolerance of Russian attempts to superimpose its practices and customs on other countries, and on foreigners who work with Russia."

That the West accepts the situation in Russian internal affairs is understandable. Even during the Cold War, Western governments did not demand that Russian practices conform to the values of freedom and democracy, and they cannot do so now. The harsh regime, which grew out of the Soviet system, can be changed, but only during a crisis and only by Russians themselves. But this is no explanation for the West’s tolerance of Russian attempts to superimpose its practices and customs on other countries, and on foreigners who work with Russia.

Cameron may have behaved in a more dignified manner, but unfortunately, like his predecessors, he failed to explain to Moscow loudly and clearly that good relations between countries are only possible when international relations are governed by international standards. By all means protect your internal affairs from interference by others, but don’t interfere in theirs.

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