When Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee began work on the Russia Report in November 2017, it was operating in a very different political environment. Theresa May had just lost her majority, the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, was yet to produce a political agreement with the EU, and the committee’s chairman, Dominic Grieve, was still a Conservative MP. Until it was released last week, the tension and speculation around the content of the report had only been growing.
For some, it was sure to confirm what they had thought all along – that the UK’s vote to leave the EU wasn’t a democratic decision, but a deception perpetrated by a shadowy foreign government. Russia had long been their most obvious culprit. And, in truth, the report does take a strong and critical approach to many aspects of Russia, from its foreign policy and intelligence activities, to the number of wealthy Russians living in London, buying properties and investing in businesses.
However, it is sure to have left many disappointed. Instead of uncovering concrete evidence of Russian interference in the referendum, the report stopped well short. Instead, it argued that such activities were difficult to prove, but that Russia was intent on damaging the UK, and the West, in any way it could. According to one of the MPs on the committee, Labour’s Kevan Jones, Russian attempts to subvert Western democracy are “the new normal.”
It is, of course, not the first time such allegations have been made about the world’s largest country. The view that Russia is uniquely mercenary and self-interested, and inevitably opposed to Western Europe, has a rich history, stretching back even beyond the Cold War to the days of the Empire. That narrative plays into almost every portrayal of Russia, and has effectively dictated our policy of mutual distrust with the nation, leading to a deterioration of relations to the low they’ve reached today.
In April, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Moscow dispatched PPE, ventilators and military doctors to the hard-hit province of Bergamo in Italy, one of Russia’s strongest allies in Europe. The Italian Government, it is claimed, reached out to their Eastern counterparts only after failing to secure help and expertise from its fellow European Union states, such as neighbouring France and Germany. But instead of praise from the international community, it drew only suspicion. US General Todd Wolters made headlines when he referred to the initiative as “malign influence”, while Elisabeth Braw of the Royal United Services Institute argued that Russia’s “motives aren’t so altruistic”.
It is undoubtedly true that foreign aid can and frequently does serve a strategic purpose for Russia. But the same motives can be attributed to almost any country in the world. In the UK, successive International Development Secretaries defended aid spending by setting out how it furthers Britain’s interests – strengthening ties with other nations, building our reputation overseas and opening up new trading partners. In the aftermath of WWII, the Soviet Union’s Molotov Plan did see a vast programme of overseas spending aimed at winning influence, but it paled in comparison to the US’s own colossal Marshall Plan, which had the same goal. However, only when it is Russia do we in the West see this as malign.
This sense that Russia, and Russians themselves, are a malevolent force pervades our domestic politics as well. For some years now, there has been controversy in the UK over donations made by a small number of Russian expatriates to UK political parties. The inference is that, because it comes from Russians, the money must be a secretive weapon of the Kremlin. Former Chairman of the Conservative Party, Brandon Lewis, was forced to defend against these claims last year, pointing out the fact that the donors in question were British citizens, with a track record of investing in UK sectors, like renewable energy.
It is hard to imagine respected commentators and journalists singling out dual nationals from any other country as harbouring secret loyalties to the government of the country they have left. Rightly, few would think to leverage the same claims against, for example, EU citizens who donated to the Liberal Democrats. Likewise, for all the allegations of Russian influence in the Brexit referendum, we rarely hold other nations to the same standard, even when their involvement was more concrete. Very few people accused US President Barack Obama of a shadowy campaign of democratic interference when he used a visit to the UK in the middle of the referendum to urge voters to back remaining in the EU.
Of course, not all criticisms of Russia’s foreign policy are rooted in Russophobia. From the country’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War, to its ongoing disputes with its neighbours in the Caucuses, there is plenty for Western analysts and politicians to focus ire on. However, when these issues are magnified and singled out, while similar actions by other countries are ignored, it perpetuates the narrative that Russia is alone in attempting to further its interests. That is not just factually incorrect, but has the effect of alienating the country from the global community and making that criticism easy to dismiss. Much as Revolutionary Iran pointed to the US as “the Great Satan”, we run the risk of making Russia a bogeyman of our own creation.
This approach doesn’t just result in the burning of diplomatic bridges – throughout history it has also made Western countries act more cynically and ill-advisedly, as the former diplomat and politician Rory Stewart sets out in his book, “Afghanistan: The Great Game”. Fearing that Russia would use the region to enact designs on colonial India, 19th century Britain entered into a series of catastrophic engagements in the Middle East that led to the destruction of burgeoning nations, misery for their citizens and, ultimately, disaster for the British army. And yet, more than a century later, the US and Russia were facing off across the same mountains, funding rival militias and driving the country into civil war.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has himself faced criticism for his admission that he was a “very keen student of Russian language… and a fervent Russophile [who] had learned to sing Kalinka.” While such a statement about almost any other country, possibly even China, would be seen as a strength in a statesman, as with all things, an exception is made when it comes to Russia. It is, of course, perfectly possible to be an admirer of the country, its people and their culture without being anti-American or an opponent of NATO. Instead of simply picking a side, it is far more constructive to reject the assumption that conflict between East and West is inevitable, and to seek a future where dialogue and partnership is the standard.
With a Cold War mentality still seeped into our view of much of Eastern Europe, it can be hard at times to imagine what a strong and fruitful relationship between the UK and Russia might look like. In actual fact, it has been the norm many times throughout our shared history. From the Triple Entente at the start of the 20th-century, through both World Wars, Britain has turned to Russia as a colossal counterbalance to powers in Central Europe.
Now, once again, Britain stands remarkably isolated on the world stage. American influence has waned, their interest in NATO and their military presence in Eastern Europe is diminishing. Tensions with major Western European countries have grown throughout the Brexit process. And now an almost unresolvable political impasse risks setting the UK on a collision course with China. Against that backdrop, Russia might prove one foe too many, and we may end up wishing we hadn’t written off our former ally as a lost cause.
However, political expedience alone will not be enough to turn around this troubled relationship. The UK’s recent history, the Litvinenko poisoning, the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, and our support for economic sanctions over Russia’s Ukraine policies, have meant that we have been central in condemnations and sanctions against the country. The question now is not whether we have legitimate grievances against the Russian state, but whether a continuation of our current approach is likely to produce positive results.
From 2015, those sanctions caused the collapse of Russia’s currency, and cost EU economies tens, if not hundreds of millions of Euros. But they seemed to have little effect other than to make Russians poorer and more incensed by their perceived mistreatment at the hands of European nations. It also drove Russia to build new and stronger partnerships with powers away from the US and European spheres of influence. In fact, Russia has been so successful in overcoming these sanctions by simply shifting away from Europe that the Financial Times declared their economy “in robust health” earlier this year, due in no small part to ballooning trade with China.
For all our disputes, however valid they may be, the UK and Russia have a great deal in common. Both vast former empires, our shared story in the latter half of the 20th-century has been of declining prominence as superpowers. On the fringes of Europe, but rarely comfortable being seen as entirely European, the Russian sense of national identity mirrors our own. All too often, though, Russia is seen as a far-away land with incomprehensible motives. In the words of Winston Churchill, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
This mentality, however, is changing. A recent poll of the British public by YouGov found that while only 19% of baby boomers have a positive view of Russia, 47% of millennials do. It won’t take long for this dramatic shift in attitudes to start filtering through into businesses, cultural organisations and education, driving a far more substantive exchange between our two countries. Even those who believe that Russia is an existential threat to the US would have to concede that the current approach, isolating the country economically and politically, simply won’t work. Only once that has happened will we be able to move beyond simply accepting that hostility and confrontation with Russia is “the new normal.”