11 August 2016

London calling: A sign of renewed relations with Russia?

By Adriel Kasonta

Despite the fact that quite recently, as an EU member, Britain has established itself as a country which represented a hard line towards Russia, supporting sanctions against Moscow over Russia’s alleged role in the Ukraine crisis, today it has emerged that the ongoing impasse between both countries might be coming to an end.

Having said that, it appears that the newly appointed British Prime Minister Theresa May, who took charge at one of the most troubled times in her country’s political history, is trying her best to establish a number of bilateral relations after the British decided  to leave the European Union in the historical referendum.

As as the official Kremlin website reported, Mrs May initiated a telephone call this Tuesday to Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since she came into office, during which both leaders “expressed dissatisfaction with the current parameters of cooperation in both the political and economic sphere.”

This move would certainly improve the UK’s relationship with Russia, which weakened significantly under former Prime Minister David Cameron, and it would change its trajectory towards a more favourable direction for both parties.

In fact, it seems possible the countries could reach a middle ground when it comes to the common security threats. According to the No. 10 spokeswoman,

“The Prime Minister noted the importance of the relationship between the UK and Russia and expressed the hope that, despite differences on certain issues, they could communicate in an open and honest way about the issues that mattered most to them.

“The Prime Minister and President agreed that British and Russian citizens faced common threats from terrorism, and that co-operation on aviation security in particular was a vital part of the international counter-terrorism effort.”

We can also see on the official Russian President’s website that “both leaders agreed to foster dialogue between intelligence agencies dealing with aviation security and made plans to meet in person in the near future.” We can further read that “Theresa May confirmed the participation of the United Kingdom in high-level celebrations of a memorable historical event in late August – the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the first British Arctic convoy in Arkhangelsk, several weeks after Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR,” where a commemoration of operation ‘Dervish’ (the first of the Arctic Convoys of World War II by which the Western Allies supplied material aid to the Soviet Union) will take place in the Russian city of Arkhangelsk.

It is worthwhile recalling the Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom Alexander Yakovenko’s words, while he was explaining the importance of the UK-Russia Year of Culture, launched on February 24 2014 at a ceremony at the Houses of Parliament in London, followed by a concert by the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra:

“The UK and Russia are nations that have both been blessed with rich cultural heritage, with great artists, composers, writers and performers known throughout the world.”

This is important because there are many things that we share culturally. But it is equally important because it helps us recognise and appreciate our differences in a way that builds understanding about each other as well as ourselves. I think this can manifest itself in two important ways. Cultural linkages and connections lead to more creativity. From Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, Pushkin to Dickens, the Tudors to the Romanovs, Wren to Thon, great artists, architects and writers and statesmen have enriched the dialogue between our countries. This cultural interaction and sharing helps us question the simplistic stereotypes that programmes such as the Fox series, “Meet the Russians”, all too easily shape.

Cultural linkages lead to better business and trade ties, too. In recent years, Russia has become an increasingly important trading partner for the UK. The country is the UK’s fastest growing export market, and in 2012 British exports to Russia increased by 15%, reaching £5.5bn. With trade comes cultural interaction. Deeper cultural links are the vital grease that oils the cogs; without it the great potential for further business growth could be missed.

Therefore, bearing in mind the fact that May and Putin will meet face to face at the G20 summit in China in September this year, Mrs May would be well advised to take Daniel Kawczynski MP’s, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and former Special Advisor to David Cameron on Central and Eastern Europe, words to her heart:

“As the only British MP to have been born in a Communist-occupied country, I have no illusions about the Russian bear…For all that, I believe we might now be antagonising the Russian bear too much. These are words I could never have imagined writing in my wildest dreams as a young man. This month, however, I have submitted a written question in the Commons asking for an estimate of the lost revenue to the UK from the sanctions we have imposed against Russia both in terms of lost foreign direct investment and a loss of British exports.

This may raise eyebrows. The consensus in the House of Commons up until now has been that Russia is an aggressor that must at all costs be isolated and contained and few, if any, dissenting voices have been raised in the chamber about this policy. There are significant figures in the military establishment – including Lord Richards, the former chief of the defence staff – who believe, given the strength of Moscow’s convictions and its historical propensity to accept pain in the perceived national interest, that an increased escalation will not work and could indeed be more damaging to the UK than to Russia.

Still, not being on speaking terms – let alone trading terms – with a country as large and influential as Russia is simply not practical in a world that is crying out for global co-operation. At this difficult time in the financial markets, with such instability in the eurozone, we have to ask how much longer we can afford to block British companies from trading with Russia. The Prime Minister may have set a target of £1 trillion exports by 2020, but the outgoing UK trade and investment minister Lord Green told me two years ago that we would be doing very well to reach 80% of that target. It is hard honestly to see how we are going to fill this £200bn black hole in the exports target unless we start trading normally again with the Russian bear.”

Adriel Kasonta is London-based editorial board member at the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies, and European affairs researcher at Wikistrat, Inc., a geostrategic consulting firm based in Washington D.C. Kasonta is also the editor and leading author of the Bow Group’s report titled “The Sanctions on Russia.”