New British Prime Minister Theresa May’s appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary gives grounds for limited optimism that the ultra hardline against Russia, which Britain has been following, may be coming to an end.
Theresa May’s views about Russia are a closed book. She has no background in foreign policy and barely comments on the subject. During the Brexit referendum she signaled her support for Remain and then said barely anything at all.
Theresa May did however hold out against the attempts to set up a public inquiry into the Litvinenko murder. She rejected the Coroner Sir Robert Owen’s request to set up such an inquiry, making it clear that she thought such an inquiry wrong and inappropriate. After her decision was overruled by the High Court she gave only the most grudging welcome to Sir Robert Owen’s final report, making it fairly obvious that she continued to think that the whole thing was a mistake.
That was a very courageous and difficult step for Theresa May to take at the time, exposing her to charges that she was covering up for Putin and Russia, and it suggests that if nothing else she has an open mind and does not share in the pathological Russophobia of much of the rest of the British establishment.
In that context it is striking that she has chosen to move Philip Hammond – Cameron’s ultra hardline Foreign Secretary – to the Treasury and has replaced him with Boris Johnson. Whilst Boris Johnson is perhaps most famous as the de facto leader of the Leave campaign in the recent Brexit referendum, unlike most British politicians he takes a strong interest in foreign policy, writes intelligently on the subject and speaks several languages.
Most strikingly, Boris Johnson has recently also had some good things to say about Russia, going out of his way for example to praise its role in the liberation of Palmyra and even making some thinly veiled criticisms of EU policy in Ukraine.
Here for example is what Boris Johnson had to say about the Russian role in liberating Palmyra in an article for The Daily Telegraph:
“It has been Putin who with a ruthless clarity has come to the defence of his client, and helped to turn the tide. If reports are to be believed, the Russians have not only been engaged in air strikes against Assad’s opponents, but have been seen on the ground as well. If Putin’s troops have helped winkle the maniacs from Palmyra, then (it pains me to admit) that is very much to the credit of the Russians. They have made the West look ineffective; and so now is the time for us to make amends, and to play to our strengths.”
Given the Russophobia of the British establishment saying that required some courage and immediately exposed Johnson to attacks for being a pro-Putin and pro-Russian apologist.
One should not expect too much of either Theresa May or Boris Johnson. It is unlikely that either have very firm views on Russia and Boris Johnson has been made foreign secretary most probably principally for reasons of internal party management within the Conservative party than because of any very muted sympathies he may have for Russia.
British policy remains anchored in the US alliance and NATO and it is simply not possible for a British Conservative Prime Minister or a British Conservative Foreign Secretary to change that in any significant way. However if Theresa May and Boris Johnson are able to rein some of the anti Russian hysteria in Britain and act on some of the positive proposals for a resumption of the dialogue with Moscow and an end to NATO expansion outlined in the recent Defence Committee that will be progress of a sort.