It is good news that Theresa May has spoken to Vladimir Putin, and that they have agreed to meet at next month’s G20 Summit in China. Our relations have been at a counterproductive low for far too long. A thaw is long overdue.
There were, at the time it occurred, compelling reasons for the freeze. As British Ambassador in Moscow, I witnessed the poisoning by the Russian security services of Alexander Litvinenko, Russian attacks on the operations of British oil companies there, and a systematic campaign of harassment and intimidation directed at me personally. Since then we have had the annexation of Crimea, the fomenting of civil war in Ukraine, the felling of flight MH17, and Russia’s backing for the unspeakable president Assad of Syria.
So the charge sheet is long, and the chill has gone deep. Of all major Western nations, we have probably maintained the hardest line on Russia. Our links with the Russian intelligence agencies have been frozen since the Litvinenko murder. Exchanges at the highest level have been few and frosty. We have led the demand for tough EU sanctions, and excluded ourselves from Franco-German efforts to find a negotiated solution to the Ukraine problem. And while even America is looking for a way forward with the Russians on Syria, we seem to be standing pat on the simple demand for Assad to go.
Other Western countries have now begun to rebuild their links with Russia. There is a growing queue of senior ministers and even prime ministers visiting Moscow. Support for sanctions is weakening. We too should now rethink.
There are the normal prudential reasons for this – British business has been very uncomfortable with our outlier stance. But the arguments go beyond that. While the sanctions have demonstrated international disapproval of Russian actions in Ukraine, they have not altered Russian policy one jot, and show no prospect of doing so. In fact, and entirely predictably, they have cemented Russian public support for their president as he presents himself as standing up to a hostile West.
More worryingly, many now see the deep gulf that has opened up between Russia and the West as presaging a “new Cold War”. Talk in Nato is all of the danger of a Russian grab for Estonia. Nato forces in the region are being significantly augmented, with the US in particular announcing a quadrupling of its defence expenditure in Europe. The Russians too are rearming, making worrying demonstrations over the Baltic and elsewhere, and regularly referring to the possible relevance of their vast stockpile of nuclear weapons.
This dangerous nonsense has to stop. The picture we are building up in our minds of a revanchist Russia is as absurd as their picture of an aggressive and encircling West. Russian military expenditure is one tenth of Nato’s and their economy one twentieth. They are not going to take the risk of getting themselves into a losing war. As President Obama among others has noted, they could have taken East Ukraine and didn’t. Those in our security commentariat talking (occasionally with relish) of a new Cold War need to remember more clearly what the old one was like: the bloated military expenditures, the vast arsenals that neither side had complete command of, and the occasional moment of real danger that they might be used.
So it is crucial that we walk back from where we now are. Russia sees the UK as a leading Western hawk. A thawing of our relations with them would be an important step. I am not arguing that we should let our guard down entirely. Russia’s recent actions have revealed a disturbing readiness to break international law and seize national advantage when the opportunity offers. We need to be absolutely clear on Nato’s united readiness to stand firm against such adventures and to support our more exposed allies as and when necessary. But to get the temperature down we also need to be looking for areas where we can expand cooperation. The arrival of the new government opens the possibility of our offering a less cold shoulder to the Ukraine peace process. And on Syria we, like the Americans, have an interest in finding an arrangement with the Russians that will help ease Assad out while focusing our combined attention on the real enemy there: Isil.
Unexpectedly, our change of Foreign Secretary should be helpful in all of this. Philip Hammond, for all his qualities, was counterproductively hard-necked on Russia, describing Putin as a wife-beater and pointlessly demanding what everyone knows is never going to happen – the return of Crimea. Boris Johnson by contrast has, in the pages of this newspaper, recognised the need to “do a deal with the devil” over Syria and acknowledged the EU diplomatic incompetence which helped lead us into the Ukraine morass. He has accordingly evoked a statement from the Russian foreign ministry (no doubt curious as to the role that a post-Brexit Britain intends to play) calling for closer ties. There are traps to be avoided in taking that invitation up, but real costs in not doing so.