News that British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson is flying to Moscow comes directly after a House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee reported that Britain’s policy of not speaking to the Russians has become unsustainable.
This will be the first visit of a British minister to Moscow for 5 years.
The opinions of this committee were well summed up in a short article in the Guardian by its chairman, the Conservative MP Sir Crispin Blunt
Refusal to engage with the Russian government is not a viable long-term foreign policy option for the UK. Back in 2000 my predecessors on the foreign affairs committee noted that the Foreign Office “must continue and develop its critical engagement with Russia in the mutual interest of our two European countries”.
While understanding the immense challenges that the government faces in any engagement with Russia, we could do better. Without engagement it is impossible to scope out areas of common interest or indeed to be clear of our mutual understanding on points of difference. The Foreign Office’s expertise on Russia has, frankly, disintegrated since the cold war, and Whitehall has lost some of the skills needed to handle the country. The UK also needs to develop a long-term strategy to foster people-to-people relations between Russia and the UK.
The foreign secretary recognises that disengagement serves no-one’s long-term interests. He recently noted: “We have to engage with Russia. We have to talk to the Russians. We cannot endlessly push them away and demonise them.” The government now needs to turn this sentiment into a clear strategy.
The immense difficulties that lie ahead of re-establishing a functioning dialogue between the British and the Russians is however highlighted by another passage in Sir Crispin Blunt’s article. This too follows closely the thinking of the committee he chaired
Our report noted the possibility of the UK becoming an isolated actor on the sanctions, and the increasing difficulty in sustain a united western position. Furthermore, we highlighted the need for western policymakers to compartmentalise the various theatres, such as Ukraine, Syria and even sport, rejecting any Putin-Trump grand bargain. Grand Bargains only incentivise parties to start collecting more bargaining chips, potentially threatening other fields.
No-one, least of all the Russians, is talking of a ‘Grand Bargain’. However a successful relationship requires some willingness to meet the other side’s concerns if only part way. Sir Crispin Blunt’s words unfortunately show that the British are not prepared to do any such thing. Instead his call to ‘compartmentalise’ contentious issues looks like a case of the British both wanting to have their cake and eat it, with the British continuing to treat the Russians as an enemy on issues that matter to Russia, whilst having Russia’s help on issues which matter to Britain.
A good example is the approach Sir Crispin Blunt and his committee propose Britain should take in relation to the sanctions issue. It is worth setting out the committee’s comments about this in full
If the UK is determined to maintain a principled stance in relation to the sanctions on Russia, this may require uncomfortable conversations with close allies. The withdrawal of the existing sanctions should be linked to Russian compliance with its obligations toward Ukraine, and should not be offered in exchange for Russian co-operation in other areas. This approach would avoid ceding moral and legal legitimacy to Russia and departing from UK values and standards.The challenge in this approach is that the practical effect of economic sanctions on Russian decision-making is doubtful. It looks as though it will be increasingly difficult to sustain a united western position on sanctions, not least if they become a bargaining point during Brexit negotiations. The UK faces the possibility of becoming an isolated actor supporting a policy towards Russia that is failing. This could lead to further damage to Britain’s long-term ability to influence Russia.
96.The international community must remain unified in the face of Russia’s assertion of its perceived sphere of influence and its disregard for the international norms in its treatment of Ukraine. The FCO should prioritise international unity on policy towards Russia in talks with the new US Administration, and should continue to work closely with EU partners to maintain support for Ukraine, whether this is delivered through sanctions and/or assistance to Ukraine.
Alternative pathways for drawing down sanctions
97.The withdrawal of some EU sanctions is specifically linked to the completion of the Minsk II process. Yet the process has stalled amid frequent ceasefire violations and debates in Ukraine over the decentralisation measures that Minsk II requires. Officials we met on our visits to Russia and Ukraine both blamed the other side for the lack of progress.
98.This stalemate in part reflects the flaws inherent in the text of the agreement. The terms of Minsk II require Ukraine to reform its constitution, to grant a “special status” to Donetsk and Luhansk and to hold elections there. Yet the agreement’s lack of clarity on the precise sequencing of these steps has led to disputes and deadlock in the Ukrainian parliament. By contrast, Russia is not named in the text, which requires only that “armed formations from certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions” adhere to the ceasefire terms and that “foreign armed formations, military equipment, as well as mercenaries” withdraw from Ukraine. This allows Russia to deny any responsibility for implementing the Agreement, as Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Putin, did in an interview with BBC News’ HARDtalk programme in January 2017. The fact that Russia is not given any direct responsibilities also means there are no specific actions that would demonstrate Russian compliance with the process.
99.The FCO should be open to considering any proposals that the Russian Government may advance to resolve the situation in Ukraine outside the Minsk II process that are in line with international law. Russian actions demonstrating compliance with the rule of international law in Ukraine could be linked to the gradual removal of sanctions and would provide Russia with a route map to restoring positive relations with the West. We invite the FCO in its response to this report to detail the exact responsibilities of Russia with regard to the Minsk II agreement. The measure of success in relation to sanctions is their no longer being needed. It is therefore imperative that the international community recognises the need for an achievable route to rapprochement
(bold italics added)
The committee admits the sanctions policy is failing and that it failed to achieve what it was intended to do, which was change Russian policy towards Ukraine and Crimea. They admit that the linkage of the sanctions to the Minsk Agreement makes no sense because the Minsk Agreement not only makes no demands of Russia but Russia is not even mentioned in its text. The committee admits Britain’s capacity to influence Russia or even Britain’s allies on the question of the sanctions is limited and likely to decline. The committee admits that by maintaining its ultra hard-line on sanctions Britain risks becoming isolated supporting a policy which is visibly failing.
Yet instead of proposing a British diplomatic initiative to break the deadlock so that the sanctions can be lifted and Britain can avoid becoming isolated, all the committee is ultimately prepared to do is ask the British Foreign Office to present to the Russians a new set of demands the Russians must fulfil in order for the sanctions to be lifted (“report in detail the exact responsibilities of Russia with regard to the Minsk II agreement”).
The committee does not say what would happen if the Russians reject this approach – as they will – and instead respond – as they also will – that they are not prepared to re-write the Minsk Agreement to take extra responsibilities upon themselves simply because the British want them to, and that they insist instead on the Minsk Agreement in its present form (which they regard as perfectly clear) be complied with in full by the only party which is breaching it, which is Ukraine.
In a similar vein, on issue after issue – Syria, human rights etc – it is the Russians who the committee says are in the wrong, and who must make the concessions, even if the committee also admits that the British are in no position to force the Russians to make the concessions.
The House of Commons committee’s report does contain some flickers of realism. It rejects proposals that Britain should boycott next year’s World Cup in Russia. It says that closing down the British branches of RT and Sputnik would be a serious mistake. On the question of alleged Russian war crimes in Syria, it draws back back from these claims (though it does not drop them completely) and it makes this striking comment criticising British and Western rhetoric on this issue, which calls into question the evidence upon which that rhetoric was based
118.There is currently no realistic prospect of the ICC mechanism being used to investigate and address war crimes committed in Syria.
119.The UN inquiry into the air strike on the convoy (discussed in detail here – AM) demonstrated the challenge of establishing the intent behind an attack on a plainly civilian target in order to sustain a conclusive view on whether or not a war crime has been committed. The Russian response to these charges was consistent with its view that it is held to different standards from those to which we hold ourselves. The Government is right to call out the Russian military for actions that potentially violate International Humanitarian Law. However, if the Government continues to allege that Russia has committed war crimes in Syria without providing a basis for its charge, it risks bolstering the Kremlin’s narrative that Russia is held to unfair double standards by hostile and hypocritical western powers. Un-evidenced rhetoric from both sides also makes it difficult to implement the practical co-operation measures necessary to deliver lasting peace in Syria.
(bold italics added)
However the only positive proposal the committee comes up with in order to improve relations between Britain and Russia, one on which however it rests far too much hope, is anti-terrorism cooperation
130. Russia and the United Kingdom have a shared interest in combatting Islamist terrorism and extremism. It is difficult to envisage how to progress this shared interest considering the differences between the two countries’ respective definitions and analyses of terrorism, and acceptable methods to defeat it. Any dialogue with Russia must be handled with the greatest care, but it is at least worth exploring. The Government and its agencies should be having a regular dialogue with their Russian counterparts about the causes of Islamist extremist violence and the potential strategies to address it. This shared objective could be utilised to open constructive dialogue with Russia in the area of common shared security and anti-terrorism. That dialogue should be used to improve relations, better understand Russian foreign policy and initiate discussion on freedom of expression, the rule of law and human rights, and the ongoing issues in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
(bold italics added)
The last sentence gives the game away. The committee admits, though rather grudgingly, that anti-terrorist cooperation with Russia is in Britain’s interests. However it wants Britain to leverage this cooperation to “change Russian behaviour” on other issues according to Britain’s wishes. Reading this sentence the Russians – who after all do not need Britain’s help to defeat terrorism – must wonder whether the grudging help the British are prepared to offer is worth the price.
The great British historian A.J.P. Taylor once said in my presence that the fundamental problem of British policy towards Russia is that Britain always treats Russia like a tap, which it wants to be able to turn on and off whenever it likes. Stripped of some of its realist language, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee report is no different.
The Russians have never accepted being treated in this way, and there is no reason to think they will do so now.
This British refusal or inability to engage in any fresh thinking on any key issue of concern to Russia inevitably means that any ‘dialogue’ the British now try to establish with Russia will be a dialogue of the deaf, with the British and Russians talking passed each other.
Unfortunately all the indications are that this is the approach Boris Johnson is intending to take with him to Moscow. The Financial Times quotes a British Foreign Office official saying
This is absolutely not about cosying up — in fact the opposite. He intends to say the same things face to face as we do in public . . . Boris has always said we can’t reset but we must engage when in our interests.
If Boris Johnson is simply going to Moscow to read his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov another lecture on Russian misbehaviour whilst demanding Russian help on issues of British interest, then he is simply wasting his own and Lavrov’s time. If the Russians are no longer willing to listen to such lectures from the US, then they are certainly not prepared to take them from the British, and whatever help they are prepared to give the British on any issue of interest to the British will be limited in consequence.
All the indications unfortunately are that Boris Johnson’s trip to Moscow will be a short and uncomfortable one, and that no breakthrough should be expected, with British-Russian relations stuck in the same impasse that they have been in throughout my lifetime.