Parliament’s foreign affairs select committee has warned that the UK’s relations with Russia are at their most strained since the end of the Cold War, since when the Foreign Office’s Russia expertise has “disintegrated” .
A succession of crises since the mid-2000s, including the murder of British citizen Alexander Litvinenko, cyber-attacks and hybrid warfare threats to NATO countries and Russia’s attempts to interfere in referendums and elections in some European countries and the USA, have tested the relationship. Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria present the two most urgent challenges.
But the committee argued that it is short-sighted not to engage with Russia – however uncomfortable such conversations might be.
The FCO appears not to know what it wants from its relations with Russia. It should clarify its objectives and then conduct a meaningful and regular political dialogue with the Russian Government in a spirit of “frankness and honesty” while maintaining the UK’s core values.
Working towards Brexit, Government should clarify how the UK would impose sanctions on Russia, which are currently agreed and applied by EU Member States. The FCO should continue to work with EU partners to maintain support for Ukraine and should prioritise international unity on policy towards Russia in talks with the new US Administration.
Committee chair Crispin Blunt said: “The relationship between our two countries matters. But it is fraught. Refusal to engage is not a viable, long-term policy option. The Committee agrees with the Prime Minister’s advice to the US Republican caucus: ‘Engage but beware.’
“The Kremlin has shown that it is prepared to be disruptive in foreign affairs and reject international rules as they are understood by the UK and other Western powers. Its assertion that it has a sphere of influence in former Soviet territory challenges the principle of national self-determination. Ukraine is a prime example of this and Russia’s disregard for the international rules-based order. This could be explained by Russia and the West’s differing interpretations of the post-Cold War period.
“Russia exploits opportunities where it perceives the West has not lived up to its own ideals or standards. The UK must continue to challenge Russia on actions that violate international humanitarian law in Syria or elsewhere, not least its illegal annexation of Crimea.
“The UK is not Russia’s enemy. In the long term, Russia’s focus on its western borders may be misplaced. In reality, the China-Russia relationship may be the critical international relationship to watch in the next 50 years.”