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A recent phone call between Boris Johnson (new UK Foreign Secretary) and Sergei Lavrov has inspired cautious hope that Anglo-Russian relations, which plunged to awful depths under Tony Blair’s government and continued to do so under that of David Cameron, might be repaired.
Ideally this ought to happen as Britain and Russia have no critical strategic points of confrontation. All that has kept Britain and Russia from acting as cordial allies is the fiery political rhetoric from previous British governments about a vague Russian threat to democracy, a threat no one in British politics seemed particularly good at articulating.
First of all, it must be said that Boris Johnson is not quite the buffoon he acts. Behind the façade of a nonchalant clown, whose policy is to make the world laugh, lies a man who over the years has written some insightful articles on world affairs that would put much of Britain’s current political class to shame.
One often wonders if there is a method behind Johnson’s concealing of his intellect, preferring for example to say ‘the French buy our cakes’ rather than pontificating over the long and winding road that has been over a thousand years of Anglo-French relations. But even if Johnson is quietly hoping to make amends with Russia, many forces external to Britain may well prevent this from happening.
First of all there is the EU of which Britain is technically still a member. The EU, under pressure from both its Eastern European members and the United States, has adopted a stridently anti-Russian policy. If a British government wanted to sign a free trade agreement with Russia, it would be prevented from doing so due to EU imposed sanctions.
As part of Britain’s stalled and ambiguous Brexit negotiations, Britain may have to rely on some of the most deeply anti-Russian states in the world. The so called A8 members of the EU (those who joined in 2004) are primarily eastern European states, some of whom have Russophobia ingrained in their national consciousness and their political policy.
These countries have been British allies within the EU, insofar as they have buttressed British calls to reform a stagnant political and often economically outdated model pursued by the Franco-Benelux-Germanic axis that has been the power base of EU institutions since the inception of the Common Market in 1957. Like Britain, the A8 countries tend to favour a looser confederation rather than a United States of Europe favoured by older western and central European states. But amongst the A8 group are countries like Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania for whom the idea of better relations with Russia would appear a betrayal, though Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are exceptions as they have, especially in recent years, called for more calm in EU/Russian relations. It is however difficult to say if the A8 countries have the ability to help Britain’s negotiated exit from the EU as the untested process remains totally undefined and political debates regarding Brexit have over the summer primarily been about short term financial impacts and long term immigration issues rather than a more concerted focus on a medium term political settlement.
Irrespective of any of this, it is important to remember that it does not appear that Boris Johnson will be directly responsible for the Brexit negotiations as the so-called Brexit minister is the arch-Eurosceptic and frequent Tory rebel David Davis.
Secondly, there is the question of NATO. On the whole, in terms of policy making, the US is NATO and NATO is the US. Britain has traditionally been the first to support any US foreign policies as part of the bloc. Only Turkey seems to get away with being a member of the bloc whilst pursuing an independent, if confused, foreign policy.
Therefore, Britain’s would-be reconciliation with Russia is more dependent on the forthcoming US election than on any other factor.
Interestingly, a Trump victory would at least on paper, appear to be better for both Russia and Britain. Trump has said that good relations with Russia would be ideal, whilst Clinton wants to heat up Obama’s cold war. Likewise Clinton continues to see NATO as an anti-Russian bloc whilst Trump has suggested it would be better to use the bloc to fight ISIS style terrorist groups, whilst also questioning the ‘free ride’ many EU member states allegedly get as members of the bloc. Similarly, whilst Obama came to Britain and told voters that the US wants to make deals with the EU rather than Brexit Britain, Trump predicted Brexit and came to Scotland the day after it happened to glory in it. He made it clear that Brexit would not affect traditional good transatlantic relations, although to be fair the Obama administration quietly toned down the anti-Brexit rhetoric in the aftermath of people in Britain voting to leave the EU.
So Britain is caught between a rock and a hard place. If Britain wants to use countries like Poland to stand up to decades of Franco-Benelux-Germanic federalism, then Britain will have to at least pay lip service to calming Polish fears of an ‘imminent Russian invasion’. Secondly, if Hillary Clinton wins the Presidential election, nothing substantive will happen to improve relations between Russia and Britain. Only three times since 1945 has Britan’s foreign policy acted independently of Washington: during the Suez Crisis of 1956, during the Vietnam war, which Harold Wilson’s government refused despite US pressure to become involved in, and during a minor spat in the long love affair between Reagan and Thatcher over the US invasion of Grenada in 1983.
Whilst many in Russia remain rightly skeptical of Trump, almost all acknowledge that Hillary Clinton would be a disaster. Likewise whilst Trump’s personal popularity in Britain is very low, Trump has indicated that he’d be more favourable to Brexit Britain than his opponent.
Strange times call for strange bedfellows, or perhaps it would be better put to say that Russia is a country of immense resources, human talent and cultural sophistication. Who wouldn’t benefit from better relations such a country? However the decision is not ultimately in Britain’s hands.