The future of UK-Russia relations

Dr. Angelos Kaskanis

Project Manager - Tactics Institute

Foreign Minister Liz Truss said on Tuesday that the UK government is determined to impose additional sanctions on Russia and will do so until Moscow fully withdraws from Ukraine.

Russia was referred to as the “most acute threat” to UK security in the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which was published in March 2021.

There was surprise in some quarters that the review seemed to only reinforce the UK’s already hawkish stance toward Russia, which it said would “remain the most acute direct threat to the UK”, while accepting the need to deal with China.

The review mentioned the Skripal case and urged more efforts to counter Russian disinformation campaigns. In other words, there would be no softening of Russia policy, even as the UK assumed more obligations in the “Indo-Pacific” that seemed incompatible with the UK’s actual military capabilities.

The UK has responded more robustly than most NATO allies in terms of putting pressure on Ukraine. It has supplied the Ukrainian armed forces with around 2,000 anti-tank missiles and sent 30 service personnel to train the Ukrainians in their use. But while strong words from the defence secretary and firm support for Kyiv are useful, they need to be part of a coherent overall strategy.

However, the UK and Russia continue to have mutual interests in addressing a wide range of security, geopolitical and environmental challenges.

The extent of Russian influence

Russian investment in the UK totals tens of billions of dollars, but the exact amount is unknown due to the difficulty in tracing the beneficial (ultimate) owners of some assets, including UK property.

Government and Parliamentary Select Committee reports suggest that the UK has long been an appealing place for Russian investment due to perceived lighter regulation, strong capital and housing markets, a strong judicial and financial system, use of the English language, and global cultural brands such as football clubs and universities.

According to the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) 2020 report on the Russian threat to the UK, attempts at broader political influence and disinformation have been widely reported, and Russian oligarchs have used their business interests, donations to charities and political parties to gain broad Russian influence in the UK.

Today, 24 Russian companies are listed on the London Stock Exchange, including gas giant Gazprom, oil company Rosneft, and Sberbank (Russia’s largest bank), although prices have plummeted and trading in many of their shares has been suspended. The Russian Government has also raised billions in the UK by issuing sovereign bonds, but the UK Government has banned future issuances

“There had been a real hollowing out of British expertise on Russia,” said the UK defence adviser.

“British politicians were also unaware of how different their Russian counterparts were — they’re intelligence officials, not politicians as the West perceives them.”

The United Kingdom began to reconsider its position in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and launched military operations in Syria the following year.

Boris Johnson

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reviled in Moscow and embroiled in scandal in London, but when he visited Kyiv earlier this month, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky couldn’t contain his admiration for the British prime minister.

According to more than a half-dozen current and former UK security officials, the repositioning took nearly a decade. It also happened to coincide with Britain’s post-Brexit need to reset relations with the EU.

Johnson’s arms-to-Ukraine policy is also a departure from the 2000s, when then-Prime Minister Tony Blair courted Putin, the Queen hosted Putin at Buckingham Palace and western nations believed the fall of the Berlin Wall had ended the Cold War.

At the same time, the UK should recognize the value of its alliances and membership in multilateral organizations. If the UK wants to be able to call on similar support in the future, as it did following the Skripal poisoning in March 2018, it must make preparations now and be willing to help others.

The UK’s efforts should not be limited to NATO, but should also include the Northern Group, the European Union (EU), the ‘Five Eyes’ and others willing to respond collectively to Russian misbehavior.

The UK should always be aware that the Kremlin is always ready to reply to any kind of sanctions or what it considers a diplomatic “attack”. That includes a ban on the BBC, sanctions on UK officials and whoever is considered “closely involved in anti-Russian activities”.

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