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Tatiana Andreeva

Ph.D. in History, Senior Research Fellow at European Political Studies Department, IMEMO RAN

The coming to power of Dmitry Medvedev in Russia and David Cameron in the UK, neither of whom were involved in the British-Russian scandal in 2006, helped put an end to the small Cold War and facilitated the resumption of bilateral dialogue. The steady but politically difficult rapprochement between the two countries in 2010-2013 was unexpectedly interrupted by the Ukrainian crisis of 2014. The difference in perception of both what caused the crisis and how it can be resolved has not just set the two countries at loggerheads, but could even trigger an armed confrontation between them.

The coming to power of Dmitry Medvedev in Russia and David Cameron in the UK, neither of whom were involved in the British-Russian scandal in 2006, helped put an end to the small Cold War and facilitated the resumption of bilateral dialogue. The steady but politically difficult rapprochement between the two countries in 2010-2013 was unexpectedly interrupted by the Ukrainian crisis of 2014. The difference in perception of both what caused the crisis and how it can be resolved has not just set the two countries at loggerheads, but could even trigger an armed confrontation between them.

Global economic crisis and British-Russian fence-mending

Great Britain was the most difficult country for the USSR to build up bilateral relations with in Europe. After the Soviet Union’s collapse and the disappearance of ideological differences, relations between the two countries began steadily improving. This lasted until 2014, when Russian and British economic and geopolitical interests began to collide in the post-Soviet space, and in particular over Chechnya. However, it was the high-profile murder of Alexander Litvinenko, who had had been granted British citizenship after emigrating to the UK from Russia, and the claim that Russia’s secret services were behind the murder, that saw relations between Russia and the United Kingdom hit rock bottom in November 2006.

The UK’s economic weakness amid the broader, global, economic crisis and the country’s limited, but significant, dependence on Russian energy supplies helped give a renewed impetus to bilateral dialogue.


www.svoboda.org
D. Cameron and D. Medvedev, September 12, 2011

In fact, the UK’s economic weakness amid the broader, global, economic crisis and the country’s limited, but significant, dependence on Russian energy supplies helped give a renewed impetus to bilateral dialogue. Keen to promote economic cooperation with Russia, which was important for the UK amidst the crisis in Europe, without affecting the problem of human rights violations in Russia while also protecting British sovereignty (the Litvinenko case), Great Britain started discussing cooperation and the problem of human rights abuses in Russia as two separate issues. The Litvinenko case, which had been the main obstacle to improving British-Russian relations in 2013, had all but vanished, replaced by another public outcry, namely the November 2009 death of Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in the Matrosskaya Tishina prison.

The first visit at the highest level since 2005 took place on September 12, 2011 when David Cameron came to Moscow as Prime Minister of Great Britain. During the meeting, the British Prime Minister abandoned the previous policy of “an eye for an eye” and called for the direct investment of British capital in the Russian economy. As for global issues, discussions revealed a number of differences, and until 2013 the major disagreements were over the ways to handle the Syrian civil war [1].

The British side viewed the results of the elections on December 4, 2011 to the Russian State Duma as a consolidation of the state and the ruling party, and questioned the free functioning of Russia’s democratic institutions, including the media, civil society, and opposition political groups [2]. Against this backdrop, the Magnitsky case came to be viewed as totemic, representing widespread violations of human rights and testifying to the “worsened political situation in Russia” [3].

Relations between Britain and Russia deteriorated amidst the general worsening of relations between Russia and the West, which followed U.S. President Barack Obama, and began to resemble a classic “proxy war” period of a bipolar global political environment.

Vladimir Putin’s victory in the presidential elections in Russia on March 4, 2012 intensified anti-Putin’s sentiment in British society. However, cooperation between Russian and British businesses was not made conditional upon Russia’s foreign policy and its observance of human rights, and, after lengthy negotiations, a mega-deal was reached: the acquisition by Rosneft of shares in TNK-BP held by BP and Russian shareholders, valued at 61 billion dollars. [4] This resulted in BP Russian Investments Limited holding 19.75 percent of the Russian company Rosneft stock. BP became the largest shareholder of the world's biggest oil and gas company next to the state. BP and Russian Gazprom began negotiations on extending Russia’s Nord Stream gas pipeline to the UK. The final stage of negotiations on this mega-deal was accompanied by intensified Russian business activity in Great Britain. [5]

Negotiations between Vladimir Putin and David Cameron in Sochi on May 10, 2013 and in London on June 16, 2013 before the G8 summit in Ireland were also quite constructive. The main issue under discussion was putting an end to the civil war in Syria. [6]

www.paginaderusia.ro
UK Ambassador to the UN Mark Grant
stated that Russia was isolated in the
UN and international community

However, after Moscow’s Tverskoy criminal court convicted William (‘Bill’) Browder, Founder and CEO of the investment fund Hermitage Capital in absentia on July 3, 2013 and sentenced him to nine years’ imprisonment, the Home Office officially banned 60 Russians from entering the United Kingdom in what was called Britain’s “Magnitsky list”. This testified to the UK’s determination to protect the interests of its business and its citizens abroad, to its opposition to Putin's domestic policy, and to its solidarity with the United States, which had released a similar list in late 2012 in an effort to lessen Russia's influence on international affairs.

Although the adoption of the Magnitsky list could not but cast a shadow over British-Russian relations [7], the economic expediency of continued cooperation prevailed over these acute political divisions. For example, as 15 out of 16 British nuclear reactors are due to be closed down by 2023, Rosatom (Russia) in conjunction with Rolls-Royce (UK) and Fortum (Finland) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the British government to conduct a design assessment on Russian VVER pressurized water reactors for the British market and for Russian modifications to nuclear power stations in the UK. Bilateral trade also testified to the undeniable improvement of bilateral relations from 2010 [8].

The Ukrainian problem and the crisis in British-Russian relations

Although the economic expediency of cooperation with Russia’s ‘authoritarian regime’ during the economic crisis put an end to the small Cold War in British-Russian relations that had lasted for five years, the UK did not become more amenable to concessions on the political issues of human rights.

The 2014 Ukrainian crisis dealt a heavy blow to British-Russian relations. At first, different understandings of the Ukrainian government crisis and approaches to resolving it did not directly affect British-Russian relations. Relations between Britain and Russia deteriorated amidst the general worsening of relations between Russia and the West, which followed U.S. President Barack Obama, and began to resemble a classic “proxy war” period of a bipolar global political environment. In fact, relations between Britain and Russia were seriously poisoned by  the Russian parliament’s unanimous resolution to authorize a request from President Vladimir Putin to deploy troops in Ukraine to protect the Russian-speaking population from Ukrainian nationalists and neo-Nazis, and to hold a referendum in Crimea (on March 16, 2014 instead of March 30, 2014) with the active participation of unmarked Russian troops and the subsequent reunification of Crimea with Russia on March 18, 2014.

British Prime Minister David Cameron strongly condemned Russia for violating international law, noting that the matter at issue was not a new Cold War in British-Russian relations [9]. UK Ambassador to the UN Mark Grant stated that Russia was isolated in the UN and international community. [10] From then on, Britain began to play a leading role, persuading other European countries to develop and apply new restraints on Russia on behalf of the EU [11]. As a result, the West recognized Russia as the aggressor and set a course for its international isolation: Russia was expelled from the G8; NATO-Russia cooperation was scaled down; and a variety of diplomatic and political sanctions were imposed.

After unrecognized referenda in Donetsk and Lugansk, in which an overwhelming majority of the population (89 percent and 96 percent respectively) voted for secession from Ukraine, Barack Obama and then-British Foreign Secretary William Hague succeeded in expanding EU sanctions on Russian businessmen, politicians and companies in an attempt make Russia change its position over Ukraine’s Presidential election on May 25, 2014. [12]

After the fatal crash of the Malaysian Boeing MN17 passenger jet, which was apparently shot down over Ukrainian territory, the West blamed Russia, which stood accused of supplying arms and troops to the Russian-speaking population of eastern and south-eastern Ukraine, fighting against the new Ukrainian government for autonomy. Under pressure from the United States and Britain, on July 29, 2014 the West imposed the most severe sectoral economic sanctions on Russia. According to David Cameron, these new sanctions were aimed at forcing Vladimir Putin to change his policy, as he argued that Russia needed the West more than the West needed Russia. [13]

The Minsk agreement on the ceasefire in Ukraine, signed on September 5, 2014, in which Russia recognized its interest in preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity, provided its eastern and south-eastern areas were granted autonomy, failed to put an end to the mounting civilian death toll as Ukraine used heavy artillery to shell cities and towns in the two self-proclaimed republics. Moreover, in response to the Ukrainian crisis, during the Newport NATO summit on September 3, 2014 Britain announced plans to contribute a command HQ and a quarter of the troops in a new NATO rapid reaction force as an adequate response to this new “Russian threat” and to ease Baltic member states’ fears. This force “deployable anywhere in the world in just two to five days” was to be initially stationed in the Baltics [14].

Judging by the fact that the UK did not seek to become a mediator in the Minsk-2 talks, it could be argued that David Cameron knows Barack Obama's real plans concerning the Ukrainian crisis and Russia and supports them.

The sensational report about the Russian security services’ involvement in the murder of British citizen Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, which The Daily Telegraph published before the public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death, delivered a heavy blow to British-Russian relations [15]. While this information was not accepted by the court as evidence, it contributed to the crime being considered a state one.

The West’s failure to make Russia change its policy toward the Ukrainian crisis, even by imposing the most severe sectoral economic sanctions, as well as the rebels’ successful advance on Ukrainian troop positions in early 2015 prompted the hasty deployment of NATO troops in Baltic countries, also sparking vigorous discussion of the need to check the nuclear arsenals and an intense debate in the U.S. on the need to supply lethal weapons, at the Ukrainian side’s request, to fight the supposedly Russian-backed militia.

The danger of unleashing a nuclear World War III forced German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande to launch another round of negotiations with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, and then at a meeting in Minsk (February 11-12, 2015) to adopt a new plan for the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis, delaying its escalation into war. Britain, Germany and France opposed the supply of lethal weapons to Ukraine, but reserved the right to keep this position under review and announced plans to prevent the Ukrainian army’s collapse. At the same time, Britain’s position was completely in line with the wait-and-see attitude of US President Barack Obama.

*   *   *

Although the economic expediency of cooperation with Russia’s ‘authoritarian regime’ during the economic crisis put an end to the small Cold War in British-Russian relations that had lasted for five years (2006-2010), the UK did not become more amenable to concessions on the political issues of human rights. The emergence of the Magnitsky list testified to Britain’s determination to oppose Russian judicial practice in order to protect British business.

The Ukrainian crisis together with the annexation of Crimea and other alleged violations of international law by Russia sparked a return to political confrontation between Russia and the West, including the UK. Moreover, the benefits of bilateral economic cooperation have failed to strengthen the countries’ desire to normalize relations. Even the possibility of triggering a nuclear World War III did little to encourage Russia and Britain to arrive at understanding and to find avenues for cooperation. Although the United Kingdom adhered to European diplomatic efforts to solve the Ukrainian problem, it has never ruled out the American approach, i.e. a military solution. [16]

Judging by the fact that the UK did not seek to become a mediator in the Minsk-2 talks (which is unusual given the traditional British policy of participating in all important events in international affairs), it could be argued that David Cameron knows Barack Obama's real plans concerning the Ukrainian crisis and Russia and supports them. In other words, some American weapons are likely to be already in Ukraine and its supplies just have to be legitimized by the U.S. Congress. In the meantime, British military advisers will train the Ukrainian army how to use these weapons.

References:

1. Cena ottepeli mezhdu Britaniej i Rossiej. September 17, 2011. (http://www.inosmi.ru/europe/20110912/174574351.html).

2. Independent assessment of Russian elections raises UK concern. 2011. Dec. 6 (http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/latest-news/?view=News&id=702287982).

3. Velikobritanija gotovitsja dat' predupreditel'nyj vystrel. February 27, 2012. (http://www.inopressa.ru/article/27Feb2012/sundaytimes/magnitski.html).

4. “Rosneft'” polnost'ju pokupaet TNK-BP. Putin odobril «megasdelku». October 22, 2012. (http://www.newsru.com/arch/finance/22oct2012/rosneftbp.html).

5. T. Andreeva. Britano-rossijskie otnoshenija pri pravitel'stve D.Kemerona-N.Klegga. “IMEMO” 2014, # 9. Pp. 20-33.

6. Kemeron: vzgljady Moskvy i Londona na Siriju razlichajutsja. May 10, 2013. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/russian/russia/2013/05/130510_cameron_visits_sochi.shtml).

7. Oliphant R. Russia denies calling Britain a little island no one cares about. The Daily Telegraph. 2013. Sep. 6 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/Europe/Russia/10290740/Russia-denies-calling-Britain-a-little-island-no-one-cares-about.html).

8. Rossijsko-britanskie otnoshenija. (http://www.tyumen-region.ru/foreign-economic/cooperation/foreign/foreign/britain/relations/).

9. PM statement on President Putin’s actions on Crimea. 2014. Mar. 18 (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-statement-on-president-putins-actions-on-crimea).

10. UK responds to Russia’s Security Council veto on Ukraine resolution. 2014.Mar. 15 (http://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-responds-to-russias-security-council-veto-on-ukraine-resolution).

11. Russia’s actions in Crimea. 2014. Mar. 18 (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/russias-actions-in-crimea).

12. EU expand sanction list to keep pressure on Russia. The Guardian. 2014. May 13 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/10826465/Ukraine-crisis-EU-expand-sanction-list-to-keep-pressure-on-Russia.html).

13. Titcomb J. Russian sanctions create burden for UK banks. The Daily Telegraph. 2014. Jul. 31 (www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/11001223/Russian-sanctions-create-burden-for-UK-banks.htmll).

14. MacAskill E. Nato to announce 4000-strong rapid reaction force to counter Russian threat. The Guardian. 2014. Sep. 5 (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/05/nato-4000-rapid-reaction-force-baltics-russia).

15. Newell C., Telford L. and Malnick E. Litvinenko inquiry: the proof Russia was involved in dissident’s murder. The Daily Telegraph. 2015. Jan. 23 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11365730/Litvinenko-inquiry-the-proof-Russia-was-involved-in-dissidents-murder.html).

16. Dominiczak P. Philip Hammond: Britain not ruling out providing ‘lethal force’ in Ukraine. The Daily Telegraph. 2015. Feb. 23 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/11403456/Philip-Hammond-Britain-not-ruling-out-providing-lethal-force-in-Ukraine.html).

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